By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“We can’t have that,” Larry remembers thinking at the time. “After all they’ve been through, entering foster care in South L.A. without knowing anything about this country or even speaking the language — these kids would be completely lost. And on top of that, they were going to separate the kids and only send the four youngest over. I just thought, ‘Well, we can’t have that either.’ ”
After deliberating with Diane, Larry called Social Services back. The kids could stay with them — all of the kids.
“We were running around all over the place, buying towels and air mattresses — trying to figure out where we were going to put everybody.”
When Monday morning rolled around, the Stiner home had six new additions. (Raoul, now married with a child, stayed behind.)
Watani was overjoyed. “A huge weight was lifted,” he says. “The kids were with Larry, they had someone to look after them, they would be able to get their education — they were safe. I could finally relax.”
But Watani’s ease was premature. Life in America — especially life in South L.A. — has its pitfalls. For Larry and Diane, relaxation seems like a distant dream.
Says Larry: “We had no idea what we were getting into.”
On July 19, Watani enters his parole hearing dressed in mandatory prison blues and sporting a thin, stylish pair of violet-tinted glasses. Calm and poised, he politely sits down opposite the two-member parole board and their massive, imposing desk, cluttered with documents and files relating to his case. Across the room, a Los Angeles district attorney, sent to fight Watani’s release, eyes him carefully. Watani simply waits patiently to make his opening statement. It’s a moment he has been anticipating for quite some time, and when it comes, Watani goes for broke, telling the parole board that he refuses to participate in what he labels a “sham hearing.”
“I think that if more prisoners would stop participating in this system, it would be harder to justify those exorbitant salaries taxpayers are paying them,” he reads from a written statement. Watani then stands to be led back to his cell, while the shocked parole board continues the hearing without him.
It’s a legal maneuver — one designed to earn Watani a concrete release date. In 1976, while Watani was in Suriname, California passed the Determinate Sentencing Law, which eliminated vague sentences like Watani’s seven years to life, in favor of definitive, set terms. Upon his return, Watani and his lawyers argue, he was supposed to have had a hearing to come into compliance with the new law, but this never happened, and his freedom remains the sole prerogative of the parole process.
“I’d rather they slapped me with 30 years than have to deal with the politics of parole,” he later tells me. “Even if I got through the board, my case would go to the Governor’s Office. Since Willie Horton, politicians just stopped letting people out.”
Watani’s faith in the system wasn’t always so compromised. “When I first came back to San Quentin, I thought I’d serve my time, do a few years and then get paroled. So long as I played by the rules, stayed out of trouble and did what they asked of me, they’d let me out so that I could take care of my family.”
But reality has proved itself far more severe. Including the time prior to his escape, Watani has now served 18 years. He’s been denied parole eight times in the past 13 years and holds little hope that any subsequent parole boards will see the light — “not with all the lies and misrepresentations that willfully distort my case.”
He has a point: A letter from Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton’s office, signed by Commanding Officer Captain Greg Hall and sent to the parole board on February 14, 2005, indicated the LAPD’s strong objection to Watani’s parole based on his “disregard for the life and suffering of another.”
“[Watani] Stiner murdered two victims by shooting them with a firearm for unknown reasons,” the letter said.
Of course, Watani was never accused of shooting anyone, leading one to wonder whether Bratton’s office even reviewed Stiner’s file before finding him unfit for parole.
Even more infuriating to Watani is the confusion of charges against him. He was convicted of both second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder — two charges that should be legally irreconcilable for the same crime.
“Conspiracy to commit murder necessarily means first-degree murder because it involves planning, premeditation and deliberation,” says David Feld, a Bay Area lawyer who has taken an interest in Watani’s story. “Second-degree murder excludes premeditation and deliberation. The verdicts are inconsistent.”
At least one Black Panther agrees. Geronimo Pratt, who was Bunchy Carter’s chief of security at the time of his killing, has since said he doesn’t believe the UCLA shootings were a conspiracy, but were instead the tragic result of a spontaneous altercation.
“One of the Panthers pulled out a gun, which subsequently caused Us members to pull their guns to defend themselves,” he’s quoted as saying in UCLA professor Scot Brown’s book Fighting for Us: Maulana Karenga, the Us Organization, and Black Cultural Nationalism.