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In a Rare Move, California Court of Appeal Discharges Prisoner from All Forms of Custody, Including Parole, After Finding Time Served in Prison Grossly Disproportionate to His Offense

by Douglas Ankney

The Court of Appeal of California, First Appellate District, discharged William E. Palmer II from all forms of custody, including parole supervision, after finding the time he had previously served in prison was grossly disproportionate to his offense.

In 1988, 17-year-old Palmer waited in a parking garage to rob someone. He was armed with a .357-caliber revolver, which was unloaded because he didn’t want anyone to get hurt. He confronted Randy Compton and ordered him to hand over his wallet. When Compton replied he didn’t have one, Palmer–in the spur of the moment–asked Compton if he had a bank card. Compton replied that he did. Palmer ordered Compton to drive to the ATM and withdraw $200.

Arriving at the bank, Compton (an off-duty cop) drew his gun and fired 15 rounds at Palmer, who was hit in the knee and fled. Compton summoned police. The crime lasted less than 20 minutes. Palmer was captured shortly thereafter and confessed to the crime. 

He pleaded guilty to a charge of kidnapping for robbery and was sentenced to life in prison with possibility of parole. He became eligible for parole in 1996, but it wasn’t until December 2018 that Palmer was released on parole. During the 19 years in which he was eligible for parole, he had 10 parole suitability hearings but denied parole every time. Prior to eventually being released on parole, Palmer filed a state petition for habeas corpus, claiming his continued incarceration for his 1988 offense was cruel and unusual punishment under article 1, section 17, of the California Constitution and the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Court of Appeal first determined Palmer’s release on parole did not render his petition moot because parolees remain in constructive state custody and are subject to constraints on their liberty. In re Wells, 46 Cal.App.3d 592 (1975). Ordinarily, when a defendant challenges a sentence as being constitutionally excessive, the “judicial inquiry commences with great deference to the Legislature.” Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991). It is the province of the Legislature to determine the minimum and maximum allowable punishments for offenses.

However, Palmer’s petition did not claim his sentence was excessive but rather the amount of time the Parole Board required him to serve before granting parole was excessive. That period of time was set by the Parole Board and not the Legislature. And the Supreme Court of California has held that, “even if sentenced to a life-maximum term, no prisoner can be held for a period grossly disproportionate to his ... culpability for the commitment offense. Such excessive confinement ... violates the cruel and unusual punishment clause (art. I, § 17) of the California Constitution.” In re Dannenberg, 104 P.3d 783 (Cal. 2005). Prisoners may bring their claims directly to court through habeas corpus if they “believe, because of the particular circumstances of their crimes, that their confinements have become constitutionally excessive as a result.” Id. A petitioner claiming his sentence is cruel and unusual must show “his punishment is disproportionate in light of (1) the nature of the offense and his background; (2) the punishment for more serious offenses; or (3) punishment for similar offenses in other jurisdictions.” In re Lynch, 503 P.2d 921 (Cal. 1972).

In looking at the nature of Palmer’s offense, the Court observed he used an unloaded handgun, the victim was not injured, and the encounter was brief. The Court compared that with the facts of In re Rodriguez, 537 P.2d 384 (Cal. 1975). In Rodriguez, the Supreme Court held that imprisonment for 22 years was excessive where the defendant caused no physical harm, no weapon was used, and the episode lasted only a few minutes.

The Court then looked to Palmer’s personal characteristics. While the opinion went into much detail, the focal point was on the fact that Palmer was a youth of 17. The Court gave much attention to studies that reveal a youth’s brain is not fully developed, which explains the impulsive, reckless behavior. The Court also took notice of the fact that Palmer used an unloaded handgun because he wanted to reduce the risk of harm to the victim.

With regard to the second requirement of Lynch, Palmer amply demonstrated that his 30 years in prison far exceeded the maximum sentences for more serious offenses in California, such as: 11 years for voluntary manslaughter, § 193; eight years for maliciously maiming, disabling, or disfiguring a person, §§ 203, 204; and 12 years for assault with a machine gun, § 245. (All citations are to the California Penal Code.)

With regard to the third prong of Lynch, the Court stated it was unnecessary to its analysis. People v. Dillon, 668 P.2d 697 (Cal. 1983). While the Court did examine the sentencing ranges in other states for Palmer’s offense, the Court said these were of little significance without knowing how and whether those states would account for Palmer’s youth and other personal characteristics.

The Court concluded that more than 30 years in prison was a punishment far out of proportion to the danger he posed or actual harm he inflicted when he was 17 years old. Thus, Palmer had already served a prison term grossly disproportionate to his offense, so his “continued constructive custody [of being subjected to parole supervision] thus constitutes cruel and unusual punishment within the meaning of article I, section 17, of the California Constitution and the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

Accordingly, the Court ordered his release from all forms of custody, including parole supervision. See: In re Palmer, 33 Cal. App. 5th 1199 (2019). 

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