Barred for Life

Desperate prison lifers turn to Charles Carbone when trying to navigate the unfair process of parole denials

If you need to get ahold of attorney Charles Carbone on Thursday mornings, you won't find him at his cramped but atmospheric second-floor law digs in the shadow of the Transamerica Building. Instead, he's at the KPOO radio station on Divisadero, his moped parked just across the street, and he is hosting a show on prison conditions. Between the interview segments, reggae music plays.

In the seclusion of the studio, Carbone can dress as casually and flamboyantly as he pleases, a rare luxury for an attorney, which means his wiry body (he weighs all of 133 pounds) is contained in drainpipe-orange jeans, the belt for which has a huge turquoise clasp, and a thick cotton shirt with big faux-wood buttons. On his shirt's left collar is a green, yellow, and red Jah pin. On the third finger of his right hand is a ring with a large milky stone, a Lady Buddha ring (to match the Lady Buddha statuette in his office); on his left hand, a ring hosting a large engraved silver square — which represents, he explains, a Tutuareg map pointing a way out of the wilderness of the Sahara Desert.

It's certainly not the stereotypical image of a high-powered San Francisco attorney. Then again, there's very little that isstereotypical about Carbone. Over the last few years he has become a virtual one-man crusade, a go-to lawyer to whom desperate prison lifers from around California turn when trying to navigate the parole process and, in particular, when appealing parole denials.

With the exception of capital defense attorneys, there's no more thankless legal business than arguing that one murderer after another should be returned to the community. Your clients have been convicted of atrocious crimes, sometimes so ghoulish they'll infiltrate your nightmares.

For Carbone, that role is filled by the dying little old lady he is trying to get released on "compassionate" grounds, who decades back tortured a drug-dealing confederate to death over several hours. The public hates these individuals, and, by extension, you. (Despite recent drops in public support for the death penalty, a 2006 poll found that well over 60 percent of Californians still favor the ultimate sanction for murderers.) The parole board — which relies almost exclusively on "gut instinct" in these cases and whose members tend to be ex-law enforcement personnel, prosecutors, and crime victims — is utterly suspicious of you and your clientele and claims of "rehabilitation." And the governor's office has nothing to gain and a whole bunch to lose — remember Willie Horton? — by letting your guys roam the streets again.

Moreover, Carbone and the other attorneys who work this beat have found over the years that there's virtually no legal standard that can be applied on these parole denials. At the end of the day, it all comes down to certain "feelings." In the same way as a New York City co-op board can refuse to let buyers into a building for any generic reason, so long as it's not overtly racist or otherwise discriminatory against a particular group, so, too, can a parole board deny parole on the vaguest of vague rationales.

To make matters worse, district attorneys, along with victims or surviving family members, marshaled by Crime Victims United (CVU), come to the hearings to testify about your client's crimes and their impact. If, despite that, the board recommends parole, there's always the possibility of the victim's family publicly lobbying politicians for a reversal.

"When people run for office, we have a stringent procedure," explains Harriet Salarno, a one-time dental hygienist from San Francisco, whose daughter, Catina Rose, was shot dead, execution-style, by an ex-boyfriend on her college campus in 1979, and who has devoted the last three decades to organizing victims into a coherent movement under the auspices of CVU. They send out a questionnaire to many politicians around the state. "They must come to Sacramento, and come before our board. We're bombarded all the time for our endorsement." And how influential is CVU? Well, explains Salarno, according to a survey by a group of public relations firms, they're No. 2 in the state, after the firefighters union.

So Carbone must gather evidence, overcome the interest groups' influence, and face an arbitrary parole board. It takes a tireless crusader. There are 30-plus prisons in California, and only a handful of attorneys willing to devote the bulk of their time to working parole cases for lifers. As a result, a man like Carbone is almost always on the road, traveling from one prison to the next to meet clients and argue difficult cases — the ones few others want.

In 2006, California's parole board issued one of Carbone's clients, Oakland native Debra Mattie, a parole date nearly 30 years after she'd been sent to prison for 15 years to life.

Back in the 1970s, Mattie, at the time a heroin addict, was told by her then-boyfriend that he wanted her to partake in a sex party at a local hotel. Against her will, she was bundled into a car with several of his friends, and driven toward the hotel. En route, in this semi-kidnapped state, she got into a fight with one of the other women in the car, grabbed a gun that her boyfriend was carrying with him, and shot her through the face, killing her instantly. Both Mattie and her victim were added to the grim statistics of poor Americans who dole out or are on the receiving end of acts of unfathomable and senseless violence.

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