A confluence of state and federal court decisions, both concluding that the California parole system had violated the federal due process rights of convicted murderer Robert Rosenkrantz by continuing to deny him parole after he had served more than the minimum length of his sentence, resulted in the man’s release to the custody of his family on August 5.
On August 1, U.S. District Judge Gary Allen Feess in Los Angeles approved a magistrate’s report recommending that the court grant a writ of habeas corpus requiring Rosenkrantz’s release. Just a few days later, the California Supreme Court refused to override a ruling issued earlier by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Wesley, whose decision was based on a similar legal analysis.
Rosenkrantz was 18 years old, closeted, and had just graduated high school in June 1985. He was celebrating by having sex with a male companion in his parents’ beach house, when his younger brother Joey and a friend, Steven Redman, a classmate of Rosenkrantz, who suspected he was gay, arrived to spy on him. Redman, carrying a flashlight, kicked in the door of the beach house, yelled, “Get the fuck out of here you faggots,” and struck Rosenkrantz with the flashlight, breaking his nose. At the same time, Joey, who had a stun gun, burned his brother’s hand. Rosenkrantz ran out to his car and retrieved a BB gun and used it to try to prevent Redman and Joey from leaving the beach house, but they phoned Rosenkrantz’s father and, when he showed up, told him they had seen Rosenkrantz with another man who had his pants down.
Rosenkrantz insisted to his father he was not gay and that the two were mistaken, but his father, angry, threw him out of the house. The youth spent the next few days living in his car, brooding about his situation, and then obtained an Uzi machine gun, did some target practice, and went to confront Redman and demand that he recant what he had told Rosenkrantz’s father. “Redman refused and continued to taunt and ridicule petitioner,” wrote the federal magistrate. Press accounts report that Redman again called Rosenkrantz a “faggot.” Enraged, Rosenkrantz pumped ten rounds into Redman, killing him, then fled for a month before finally surrendering to police.
The state sought a first degree murder conviction, but the jury, evidently having some empathy for Rosenkrantz’s situation, would only go for second degree, resulting in a sentence of 15 years to life, plus two years for using a firearm. Rosenkrantz proved to be a model prisoner, compiling a perfect record, and earning first an associate degree and then a bachelor’s degree in prison. He also completed every available therapy and counseling program, earned several vocational certificates, and garnered glowing recommendations from prison officials in support of his applications for parole once he had served his minimum time.
But Rosenkrantz ran into a stone wall when it came to gaining release, despite winning several preliminary rulings from parole boards and courts. California’s restrictive parole system gives the governor final say on such matters, and there Rosenkrantz ran into trouble. In 2002, the state Supreme Court upheld a decision by Democratic Governor Gray Davis to deny parole, based mainly on the nature of the original offense, characterized at various times as a cold-blooded, execution-style murder. Rosenkrantz’s parole appeals became notorious in the California gay community, where many people came to understand the nature of the provocation and strain under which Rosenkrantz was operating 21 years ago.
Ultimately, what impressed the state and federal judges who ruled this summer was the failure of parole authorities or the government to take account of the changes in Rosenkrantz as a result of his incarceration. By continuing to deny parole based entirely on the nature of the offense, the courts found, the state was depriving Rosenkrantz of his right to due process of law, since the governing statutes provide that a convict who has served the minimum time required under his sentence is entitled to release if his rehabilitation results in his no longer being a danger to the community. It was clear to the judges that Rosenkrantz had accepted responsibility for what he had done, understood and acknowledged that it was wrong, and transformed himself to become a useful, non-threatening member of society.
Judge Feess’ decision in federal court ordered the state to release Rosenkrantz on reasonable terms of parole by the end of August. The subsequent state Supreme Court order, denying a stay of Judge Wesley’s state court release order, resulted in Rosenkrantz quickly being released to his family, his parents having long since accepted him as a gay son. He has a computer-related job waiting for him.
The state can appeal both of the decisions on the merits, but in the interim Rosenkrantz is finally free on bail, and it seems unlikely that the appellate courts would find fault with these decisions. Both rulings make clear that the state’s procedures in Rosenkrantz’s case have to date amounted to nullification of the jury’s determination that he was not guilty of first degree murder—and therefore is entitled to parole upon a proper showing of his rehabilitation.