Throwing Away the Key

Why Gov. Davis' just-say-no parole policy is wrong, Exhibit No. 1: Eddy Zheng has earned a college degree in prison, sings in a church choir, works with at-risk youth, has the support of clergymen, college professors, his prison counselor, and the

There is a desperation and helplessness in their voices, an expressed willingness to do anything, pay any sum, or give up everything for Eddy's freedom. They have hired the most expensive lawyers, organized events, and circulated petitions for Eddy's release. They have worked with a film crew to feature Eddy's story in a documentary called Lifers.

Though the prison is more than an hour's drive away, the Zhengs visit Eddy often. The entire family drove up for Eddy's college graduation in April 2000, beaming proudly and taking pictures of the happy moment. Eddy calls home frequently, too, and sends letters, poems, and essays.

One memorable letter arrived on Mr. Zheng's birthday a couple of years ago. In the birthday card he sent, Eddy had tucked a poem he had written for his father that expressed his regret toward the victims and his own family. Mr. Zheng wept openly and filed it away for safekeeping in a desk drawer.

Mary and Larry Zheng say their son is rehabilitated and 
they would do anything for his freedom.
Paolo Vescia
Mary and Larry Zheng say their son is rehabilitated and they would do anything for his freedom.
Critics of California's parole policy say politics alone 
keeps Eddy Zheng in San Quentin State Prison.
Paolo Vescia
Critics of California's parole policy say politics alone keeps Eddy Zheng in San Quentin State Prison.

"I've really learned a lot about Eddy, and it makes me feel happy now that he understands what he did was wrong," Mr. Zheng says. "He has changed a lot. He is more confident and he knows what he wants to do with his life. One good thing that has come out of all of this is that he has learned regret for everything that he has done."

But at times, the shadow of incarceration challenges even the Zhengs' faith. As Mr. and Mrs. Zheng left the visiting room in San Quentin two months ago, Mrs. Zheng pulled Eddy aside by the arm and asked him pointedly, "Are you ever going to get out?"

Eddy says he was surprised. "Yes, of course I'm going to get out," he told his mother. "Maybe not today, or next year, but I will get out one day. Why do you ask?"

Mrs. Zheng looked away. "Because your father says you're never coming home."

Since his initial parole grant in 1998, Zheng's collection of pink parole-denial slips has continued to grow, even as his list of institutional accomplishments has expanded.

In a May 2000 hearing, Zheng felt sure he would reclaim his freedom. But among the dozens of support letters was a memo from his arresting officer asking that the parole board deny Zheng's release because of the "violent nature" of the crime. The board did.

In a June 2001 recision hearing to determine whether his original 1998 release date should be upheld, Zheng's parole was again denied.

The Board of Prison Terms' Denise Schmidt says parole denials like Zheng's show that the board's system of checks and balances is working. "The decision to deny parole during a recision hearing can occur because they [the commissioners] might find some sort of error has been made, or some fact of circumstance has been overlooked," Schmidt says. "Because everyone in the process is concerned about public safety."

"We have to watch the lifers because they committed a heinous crime and their [the Board of Prison Terms and the governor] responsibility is to protect you and me," says Harriet Salarno, president of Crime Victims United of California.

But others say the system is arbitrary and flawed. "It is clear to us that this [parole] system is not set up to ensure fairness and justice and due process," says Gwynnae Byrd, a staffer to Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), who recently introduced a bill to establish independent judicial reviews of parole. "And for the governor to sanction such a process is not appropriate. We feel that parole considerations are not subjected to impartial, objective standards. There needs to be subjective standards, as well, but it should be subjective based on the circumstances of the crime, not the politics around the crime."

For Zheng, his most recent parole hearing in November 2001 fell into a familiar pattern. As he had so many times in the past, he waited in a San Quentin holding cell beforehand, cultivating a controlled calm to ward off nervousness. Soon, a guard escorted him to the boardroom with the same wood paneling and the same long table. He brought a manila folder of papers with him this time, filled with support letters. From the beginning, however, Zheng says he could tell what the outcome would be.

Unlike some previous hearings, there was little joking, and the commissioners sounded accusatory when they asked Zheng whether he threatened to rape the female victim, or participated in a gang. Zheng denied both, and his attorney pointed out that there was no evidence of either.

After all the formalities, the commissioners shuffled out of the room and discussed the case for about 15 minutes. Returning to the boardroom, they told Zheng that they had chosen to deny his parole for another year. In a prepared speech, a commissioner said that Zheng still posed a threat to society, that the crime was particularly cruel, that he ran with a gang and refused to admit it, and that he had not participated in sufficient self-help programs.

Zheng listened to the decision wordlessly. He looked down and blinked slowly, his hands steady and folded.

When the commissioner finished his speech, Zheng broke his pained silence. "Thank you for your comments," he said, "but when does the forgiveness -- is that ever going to come in?"

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