SAN DIEGO – Adam Riojas waited 13 years for freedom before Arnold Schwarzenegger (search) turned the key.
Convicted in 1991 of murder, the former real estate agent maintained his innocence and turned down offers of a plea bargain. Then in 2002, relatives told the state parole board that they had heard Riojas' estranged father, a drug smuggler, confess to the killing shortly before his own death. The board, with no objection from the prosecutors who put Riojas behind bars, decided he deserved parole (search).
Their recommendation was sent to Democratic Gov. Gray Davis (search), who, having publicly vowed to keep convicted murderers in prison for life, rejected it.
But a year later, after an unexpected change in state leadership, Riojas is free -- one of the 34 convicted murderers and kidnappers paroled by the Republican Schwarzenegger in his first seven months as governor.
During Davis' entire 41/2 years in office, just eight lifers were granted parole.
Riojas and his lawyer, Justin Brooks of the California Innocence Project (search), said fears of a Willie Horton (search)-type imbroglio — the case of a murderer who committed rape while on furlough and helped doom Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis' 1988 bid for the White House — led Davis to reject parole for convicted murders with little regard to the merits of their cases.
Schwarzenegger, in contrast, "is a big man and he's strong," Riojas said. "He doesn't have to portray a real tough-guy image because people already see him as tough."
Brooks said the details of Riojas' case were identical in each of his two parole bids, "and it was just a completely different result. Politically, I think Davis was unwilling to give the appearance that he was soft on crime."
Schwarzenegger's legal secretary, Peter Siggins, credited the change to a difference in philosophy: "He is a governor who believes people can reform and be reformed."
Until the final year before Davis was ousted in a tumultuous recall election, only three murderers were given parole, all women who killed men they claimed had abused them for years. One convicted murderer, Robert Rosenkrantz (search), sued Davis, claiming the governor violated his rights by adopting a blanket no-parole policy. A judge agreed in 2001, but was reversed on appeal.
Davis' former spokesman, Steve Maviglio, said every parole recommendation sent to the governor was given individual consideration, and "politics didn't play into his review." Maviglio said Davis simply "tended to come down on the side of the victims and the prosecutors more often than someone who's been in prison."
In fact, much more often: Davis rejected release for 286 lifers who had been recommended for parole by the state Board of Prison Terms (search). Of the 95 recommendations sent to Schwarzenegger as of June 2, he has reversed 58 and sent three back for further review.
Donald Specter of the Prison Law Office (search), a nonprofit organization that protects the rights of prisoners, said Schwarzenegger is giving more hope to inmates but still is not going far enough. "He's still reversing more than 50 percent of cases that the board is granting parole on," Specter said.
Very few of the lifers who seek parole each year -- about 150 out of more than 4,000 -- win recommendations from the nine-member board, which includes several former law enforcement professionals. In addition to statements from prosecutors and victims or their families, the board considers an inmate's criminal history, behavior in prison, psychological profile and likelihood of committing another crime.
"These are always hard decisions," said Schwarzenegger aide Siggins. "I sometimes walk out of this building at night hoping that we've done the right thing either way, either to let someone out or not let someone out."
Harriet Salarno, whose 18-year-old daughter was murdered by an estranged boyfriend in 1979, is worried by Schwarzenegger's record. Salerno, president of Crime Victims United of California (search), said the state owes more to the victims and the public than to violent criminals, "very few" of whom can be reformed.
"We supported Gov. Davis because he was concerned with public safety and that was a high priority," she said. As for the convicted killers released by Schwarzenegger, "let's just pray to God that they don't become repeat offenders."
Riojas, who completed 11 vocational programs behind bars, said the new administration is encouraging inmates to turn their lives around. Under Davis, he said, there was no reason for hope.
"I've seen a lot of inmates giving up," Riojas said. "They would go ahead and fight and start using drugs or alcohol ... because they said, `Hey, I'm never getting out, because no matter what I do these guys are not letting me out."'
"You would not believe the tension that the Davis years created," he said. "If our state doesn't do this, rehabilitate our people who are incarcerated, I believe that the prisons are ready to blow up."