ATLANTA -- A former Black Panther convicted of murdering a California park ranger is getting another shot at freedom after a federal appeals court found that a parole official improperly worked to keep him behind bars by secretly handing over information to Justice Department officials.
The Atlanta-based 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision last week found that then-U.S. Parole Commissioner Deborah Spagnoli "impermissibly tainted" the board's decision to delay Veronza Bowers' release when she wrote a memo to government attorneys about the case. Her actions, the three-judge panel said, violated the commission's mandate as an independent arbiter.
Spagnoli, who resigned from the commission in 2007, said Thursday she was unaware of the ruling and refused to discuss the case.
The panel's decision stopped short of releasing Bowers, who was convicted of the 1973 killing of Kenneth Patrick at Point Reyes National Seashore in California. But the court ordered a new hearing to determine if Bowers could be released, noting that corrections officials have called him a "model prisoner."
Bowers was sentenced to life in prison in April 1974 and at the time was eligible for parole after 30 years. The U.S. Parole Commission held a hearing on his case in December 2004, when an examiner found that Bowers was not likely to commit future crimes and had "been an outstanding inmate" for the previous 15 years. The panel decided to grant him mandatory parole in February 2005.
But days before he was to be released, a commission staff member organized a new hearing that included Patrick's widow, Tomie Patrick Lee. The panel met again in May and deadlocked in a 2-2 vote on whether to release Bowers, which by law should have allowed him to leave prison.
That's when Spagnoli sent the memo to the office of then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who made the unprecedented decision to intervene, the ruling said. The memo, which wasn't discovered until 2007, outlined arguments for an appeal that could be used by government attorneys if Bowers was granted parole, the opinion said.
Gonzales asked the commission in June 2005 to review its decision, and days later the panel voted to temporarily delay Bowers' release. Commissioners went a step further in October 2005, voting 4-0 to keep Bowers in prison indefinitely, citing a failed escape attempt he launched with another inmate in 1979 and fears he could commit another crime.
After the decision, the court said, Spagnoli sent a one-word email to a Justice Department attorney: "Victory."
Justice Department officials did not immediately comment on the case.
The commission's then-chairman, Edward Reilly, discovered the memo in 2007 and disclosed the details to Bowers in a letter. The memo suggested Spagnoli "may not have exercised impartial judgment," Reilly wrote, but he said the votes he and other commissioners made were based on their own assessments.
Aside from the memo, Spagnoli also offered to walk one Justice Department official through the case and sent several emails to the government's "point person" on the case, the court wrote.
Bowers, meanwhile, filed a 2008 lawsuit seeking his release in federal court in Atlanta, where he is now being held. A judge rejected the complaint, but the 11th Circuit reversed the ruling and gave the Parole Commission 60 days to hold a hearing.
"The actions of Commissioner Spagnoli demonstrate she was not acting as an independent and neutral decision-maker," it said.
Bowers has maintained his innocence and contends he was targeted by prosecutors because of his political views.
Defense attorney Charles Weisselberg, a University of California-Berkeley law professor, said he was disappointed the decision stopped short of setting his client free.
"We're concerned about the ability of the commission to judge this case fairly given its track record," he said.
He also said Bowers is taking the news in stride, trying not to get overly upbeat after years of setbacks.
"He's been tested severely, and he's handled it with calmness, dignity and good judgment," Weisselberg said.
Lee, the victim's widow, said she was disappointed by the decision. Her husband was the first U.S. park ranger killed in the line of duty when he was shot in August 1973. Prosecutors say Bowers and two men went to Point Reyes to hunt deer with a crossbow, and when the 40-year-old officer shined a flashlight into their car, Bowers shot him multiple times.
Lee said that she was particularly unnerved by a letter that Bowers sent her in 1990 and that she supported Spagnoli's behind-the-scenes moves to keep Bowers in prison.
"We've tried very hard to keep him in prison, and I believe we'd be in danger if he's released," said Patrick-Lee, who is 67. "It just worries me. I don't hate the man, but if he had shown any hint of remorse and admitted what he did, I probably wouldn't have worked so hard to keep him in prison."