No Way Out

Inmate Lonnie Morris is a role model, antiviolence program leader, and darling of the media. But will the parole board see past his crime?

His walker screeched across the floor as Lonnie Morris entered the San Quentin conference room, where his 15th parole hearing was supposed to have started hours ago. The hearings of two other men — both much younger than Morris — had gone long, as parole proceedings tend to do. In the end, the board found neither man suitable for release.

But Morris, it seemed, might finally have his chance. At 59, having spent more than three decades in prison, he could be the model of a rehabilitated inmate. Bespectacled, freckle-faced, and gap-toothed, he looked about as dangerous as a retired history professor.

Morris is one of a handful of San Quentin inmates to have earned a college degree, and in his time at the prison he has also developed himself as a musician, a filmmaker, and a founder of antiviolence programs. He speaks passionately and often about the problems facing urban youth, and has thereby developed an iconic reputation with the media. He even appeared on Larry King Live as an inmate spokesman.

Lonnie Morris prepares himself to face the parole board one more time.
Frank Gaglione
Lonnie Morris prepares himself to face the parole board one more time.
Morris’ victim, Officer Robert Wheeler.
Morris’ victim, Officer Robert Wheeler.

"I can see him as a motivational speaker for those headed in the wrong direction," one correctional lieutenant said of Morris. Former warden Jeanne Woodford, who has known Morris for more than 20 years, describes him as a "gentle, caring spirit ... often called upon to share his wisdom and life philosophy with other inmates and the public."

After meeting Morris for the first time, a medical student called a friend to say she had encountered the real-life version of Red, the long-rehabilitated and sympathetic inmate played by Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption.

Like Red, Morris entered prison as a violent criminal who had taken the life of another person for no good reason. Morris' case, however, was more egregious in the eyes of the law: While robbing a jewelry store, he shot and killed a police officer.

After several years in prison, Morris' outlook and values began to shift, and he became a reformer who bore little resemblance to his younger self. He demonstrates that prison is not merely a storage facility for the dangerous and the deranged, but a place where resolute people can change their thinking and behavior. When a person serving a sentence with the possibility of parole has been incarcerated long enough and is no longer considered an unreasonable risk to the public, the parole board is supposed to grant the prisoner another chance on the outside.

But that isn't always the case in California, where getting out on parole is a complex and sometimes arbitrary process that often keeps seemingly harmless prisoners locked up while simultaneously shoving problematic ones out the door. Mired in fiscal difficulties exacerbated by its enormous prison population, the state is scheduled to release about 40,000 nonviolent offenders over the next two years. In all likelihood, a majority of those will wind up back in prison.

Meanwhile, rehabilitated lifers like Morris remain at the mercy of skeptical parole commissioners appointed by tough-on-crime governors. In many cases, it's easy to find a reason to deny parole. It could be a decades-old psychological diagnosis, or a purported "lack of insight" on the prisoner's part into the reasoning behind the crime.

Morris faces both of those obstacles, but that isn't all. He also has a secret he has kept for more than three decades. To law enforcement and the family of the cop he shot, that secret makes him a threat to society. To Morris, it's part of a personal code of ethics.

At the end of the hearing, it would be up to the parole commissioners to decide just how much Morris' secret mattered, and whether he had earned his freedom.

It was a Thursday morning in August 1977 in San Pablo — a tiny city in the East Bay known mostly for its status as a UPS hub — and Officer Robert Wheeler had dropped into R.L. Customs Body Shop to see about some police car parts.

Wheeler had spent most of his life in San Pablo; he had grown up a Boy Scout, and later became a Scout leader and then a cop. A husband and father of two, he was much loved by the tight-knit, God-fearing community, and was sometimes mistaken for his twin, Alan, who worked as a reserve in the police department.

In his 18 years of service in the police department, Wheeler performed his job impressively. Just the week before, he had helped resuscitate a seven-day-old infant during a "code blue." An emergency room doctor had written a letter thanking him for his help in saving the baby's life.

That day in the auto parts shop, Wheeler's radio crackled to life to inform him of a robbery taking place seven blocks away. He wasn't the only cop to respond to the call, but he was the first to arrive, and decided to walk in alone. Fellow officers believe he may have been under the impression that it was a false alarm — common in San Pablo back then. What wasn't common in San Pablo was a criminal with a gun.

Back then, Lonnie Morris was pretty much the opposite of a Boy Scout. He had moved around a lot in his youth, from Louisiana to San Bernardino to Oakland, with five brothers, two sisters, and his parents, who were migrant workers and alcoholics.

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