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
But parole hearings are not courts of law, and members of the parole board are political appointees of the governor — neither judges nor lawyers. Evidence not present in an inmate’s prison file is disallowed, and, as revealed by the letter from Chief Bratton’s office, standards for truth and accuracy for evidence in this file are not the same as in a court of law — where the threat of perjury or rigorous cross-examination is present.
“The results of these hearings are the completely subjective opinions of political appointees,” says Patricia Fox, the attorney who represented Watani at his most recent hearing. “Opinions that are subject to the scrutiny of the governor who appointed them.”
The subjective nature of the parole board’s decisions was on ample display at the termination of Watani’s recent hearing. Despite a 2006 San Quentin prisoner evaluation that asserted Watani would “re-integrate into society with ease and prove himself to be a responsible, crime-free citizen,” and a psychological evaluation that lauded Watani’s “strong and genuine desire to provide and care for his family” and deemed him “little to no threat for repeat offense and a strong candidate for release,” the parole board decreed him an “unreasonable risk to society” due to the “callous nature of his crime.” He was given a two-year denial of parole.
After the hearing, one of the guards manning the hallway outside the hearing room pulled me aside to ask how things went.
“A two-year denial?” the guard said, head shaking in disbelief as I repeated the news. “I’ve dealt with Watani for years, and he hasn’t once been a problem. It takes about five minutes speaking with him to know he doesn’t belong in here. It makes you wonder what this whole thing is about.”
Larry, too, is exasperated with the system. “My father and I have done everything the parole board has asked of us over the years,” he says. “I’ve sent letters on his behalf, we’ve arranged him a place to live when he gets out, he has a job offer, and my father has attended practically every self-improvement seminar the prison offers. There’s nothing more anyone can do. If they don’t want to let him out, they’re not going to let him out.”
The parole board’s decision reinforced what’s become increasingly clear to the Stiners over the years — Watani won’t be coming home to raise his children anytime soon. Larry and Diane are on their own.
On a recent warm summer evening, Larry Stiner stands on the front stoop of his South Los Angeles home, surveying his neighborhood in the dusk light. Dressed in immaculate tan slacks and a stylish black silk shirt, he watches as a group of wife-beater-clad children play a halfhearted game of basketball in the street, using only their right hands while clasping a single dollar bill in their left — biding their time until the ice cream truck comes around.
Sandwiched halfway between Inglewood and Watts, the neighborhood is one Larry knows well — it’s been part of his family for generations. “My father spent his teenage years in that house right there,” he says, pointing up the block to a single-story blue house with an overgrown yard.
Larry’s house, a charming pale-yellow stucco with a cactus garden in the front yard, was once his maternal grandmother’s. “A few years ago, Diane and I were living in Lawndale when my grandmother took ill. I really had no intention of moving back to the neighborhood, but my grandmother needed looking after, and then when she passed, we just decided to make this place our own.”
Inside the house, 16-year-old Tamania, Watani’s youngest daughter, glides through the hallway on the way to her room, chatting softly into a cordless phone. Tall, lean and fast on her way to becoming a beautiful young woman, she arrives and shuts the door gently behind her — a slight girlish giggle escaping her lips before she can close it entirely.
In the living room, across from Tamania’s bedroom, a rather large, blanket-covered lump on the couch, which appears to be Lige taking a nap, stirs slightly as Larry opens the front door and enters the house. Larry passes quietly down the front hallway, through the kitchen and into the television room at the back end of the house, where Khyra and Diane sit on the couch reading a story. Next to them on a reclining chair, Mtume, at 14 the youngest of Watani’s six Surinamese children, sits quietly watching basketball on a massive, 50-inch television.
Seeing her father come into the room, Khyra immediately gets up and approaches him with a large stuffed horse.
“Daddy, pet Pony,” she demands, holding out the stuffed animal for her father to stroke. Larry obliges and then walks over to join Diane on the couch. Khyra grabs Pony and sits down between her parents, waiting for Diane to continue reading her a story. It’s a peaceful scene of domestic tranquillity, and Larry looks genuinely perplexed by the whole thing.