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A Brush With Life

Clemency hearings in California are fundamentally strange: Neither of the people at the center of the proceedings actually shows up. Last Friday in Sacramento, the missing men were death-row inmate Stephen Wayne Anderson, whose court appeals have been exhausted and who is scheduled to die January 28, and Governor Gray Davis, the only person on the planet who could save his life.

Still, those who were present pressed forward with their case to the nine-member California Board of Prison Terms, attempting to conjure an image of the man whose life was on the line. Anderson‘s supporters described him as a gentle and introspective soul who bears little resemblance to the wayward drifter who burglarized the Bloomington home of 81-year-old piano teacher Elizabeth Lyman and shot her in the face.

“Grief, remorse and profound sorrow are at the center of who he is,” said Sister Christine McNamara, a Catholic nun who has known Anderson for 14 years. “He is no longer a man with a quick temper and a 10th-grade education.” From the confines of his 8-by-10-foot cell, she said, Anderson developed a love for poetry and literature, spending hours poring over Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams and Isabel Allende. He himself wrote plays and poetry, including works that reflect his own struggle to deal with his crime. “Unwashed sinners crawl from gathering cold,No longer proud, self-righteous . . . bold;And those who demanded to stand alone,Denying heaven must now atone.”

“Stephen is simply not the same person he was 21 years ago, and taking his life now makes little sense,” said assistant federal public defender Margo Rocconi, who has represented Anderson for the past five years. “He has become so much more than the worst thing he ever, regretfully, did.”

David Whitney, with the San Bernardino District Attorney’s Office, dismissed such characterizations. “If he‘s changed, great. God bless him. But we’re not talking about what‘s good for him. We’re talking about what‘s good for society.”

Or, perhaps, what’s good for the governor, who has Oval Office aspirations and has denied every clemency request put to him. Lance Lindsey, executive director of the San Francisco--based Death Penalty Focus, tried a pragmatic approach with the board, assuring them that “This is a case that is politically safe.” He reminded the panel that some of Elizabeth Lyman‘s family members had asked that Anderson’s life be spared. He pointed out that there are more than 2,000 homicides in California each year, and that only 1 percent get the death penalty. He argued that Anderson‘s inability to hire a decent lawyer, combined with the pro-prosecution bent of the court in San Bernardino, had more to do with his harsh sentence than the crime itself. “In any other county, in any other situation, he would never have gotten the death penalty,” Lindsey said.

The Board of Prison Terms is one of California’s highest-paying statewide commissions, offering a $100,000-a-year salary plus benefits. Its members, all appointed by Davis and most of whom are law-enforcement types, include Sharon Lawin, a former executive director for the Los Angeles County Professional Police Officers Association; David A. Hepburn, past president of the L.A. Police Protective League; Alfred R. Angele, a former executive director of the California Organization of Police and Sheriffs and a past member of the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training; Leonard G. Munoz, a 30-year member of the Los Angeles Police Department; Booker T. Welch, past associate warden at San Quentin; and Jones M. Moore, who worked for the Youth Authority as a youth correctional counselor. Board chairwoman Carol Ann Daly was an undersheriff with the Sacramento County Sheriff‘s Department.

Davis has also appointed two termed-out state assemblymen (both conservative Republicans) to the board: Tom Bordonaro, who authored the “10-20-Life” law, which greatly increases sentences for crimes committed using guns, and Brett Granlund, who recused himself from the hearing. The reason for his abstention from the proceedings was not released, though Granlund, whose district included San Bernardino, once called his nearby hometown of Yucaipa a “dust bowl full of white trash.”

After the hearing, the board made a confidential recommendation to Davis, who is expected to render this decision: Anderson dies.