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.
"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.
When Morris was 12, his mother died of cirrhosis, and his father fell into a depression. The male siblings began stealing to support the family, and eventually became engaged in violent lifestyles.
"Most of the people that died in our family was killed," said Morris' sister, Gloria Burnside, the oldest of the eight siblings. She estimated that about 20 extended family members have been murdered. "My husband was killed. His brother was killed. My brother was killed. My nephew was killed. My other nephew was killed," and the list went on.
Immersed in a culture of violence, Morris oscillated from the streets to jail to prison and back. By age 26, he had accumulated a considerable rap sheet. He had three juvenile offenses, including a pot bust and a burglary charge. In 1972, he was convicted of armed robbery and received a five-to-life sentence. Paroled in 1975, he committed another burglary, served more time, and was released again in April 1977.
Out on parole and probation, in the broad daylight of Aug. 4, 1977, Morris and his crime partner (whom we'll say more about later) burst into Robert Mussleman's jewelry store in San Pablo. They ordered him to the floor at gunpoint. "We've killed before and we'll kill again," they told him.
Mussleman did as he was instructed, and was bound with telephone wire. The commotion set off a burglar alarm connected to the San Pablo police station, which relayed the call to Wheeler's radio.
As Wheeler entered the store, and before he could even draw his gun, Morris stood up from behind the counter. Though Morris says he yelled "Freeze," Mussleman has no memory of that. Morris also says he didn't mean to shoot, but his gun went off anyway. A bullet struck Wheeler in the face, instantly sending him to the floor.
Uncertain of whether the cop was alive or dead, the two men fled the store, dashed across a parking lot, and disappeared into a nearby residential complex.
Close on Wheeler's heels, several police officers discovered him lying on the floor of the jewelry store and summoned an ambulance. He died at Richmond Hospital shortly after arrival, becoming the first and only member of the San Pablo Police Department to lose his life in the line of duty.
At that point, every police officer from the department (and several neighboring departments) was called to the scene. They cordoned off the block and received instructions to knock at every door and request permission to search. If the answer was yes, they were to conduct the search. If the answer was no, they were to conduct the search. Every building was turned upside down; three unoccupied houses were also checked.
After several hours, a police dog caught a scent from underneath a home, and Morris was flushed out from its crawl space. Police also found a .38-caliber revolver wrapped in a glove; Morris had the other glove in his pocket. The second man had escaped, and police still do not know his identity. That is Lonnie Morris' secret, one he has managed to keep for 32 years.
Although revealing the man's name could be an important bargaining tool with the parole board, Morris says he will never give in. If he did, the man would likely face a murder charge and spend the rest of his life in prison.
Morris can't live with that. "That man had no idea what was going to happen," he said. "I take full responsibility for what I did."
In the San Quentin conference room, Morris removed his hat and jacket and lowered himself onto a torn seat cushion before Hollis Gillingham. She's a parole board commissioner known for her smoker's rasp and tough-love sensibility who used to work as a background investigator and probation officer.
"Okay. Hi there," she said brusquely.
If that was a cool reception, it was nothing compared to that from Wheeler's family members. Seated at the back of the room, his son Randall wore a scowl raw with hate, while the stony expression of his widow, June, betrayed no hint of compassion for the prisoner. That was nothing new.
The Wheelers have shown up to every parole hearing of Morris' over the past two decades to ask that he remain imprisoned. They did not agree to be interviewed, citing concern that a story about Morris might champion his cause, but they have suffered immeasurably, said San Pablo Police Chief Joseph Aita. The death was particularly hard on Wheeler's twin brother, who had continued working in the department. "I'm telling you, every time we saw Alan, it killed us," Aita said. "It was like we were looking at Bob."
As Gillingham reviewed the events of Aug. 4, 1977, and Morris' criminal history, the prisoner sank a little in his chair. Finally, she asked him the inevitable, loaded question. "So what made you so violent and antisocial?"
Morris knew that his reasoning would be picked apart for lack of insight, but what could he do? He began to talk about the death of his mother and the division of his family. "The real core of my violent behavior was based on anger and pain," he said. "No one had given me any understanding of why she died."
Gillingham probed Morris' relationship with his alcoholic father and learned that the boy had been beaten with switches and irons, but she seemed unimpressed. "Lots of kids lose their parents," she said. "Lots of kids get whupped. They don't end up violent with this total disregard for anybody else." Then she brought up the secret. "Was one of those brothers the one you perpetrated this robbery with?"
"No," Morris said.
"You've never given that person up, have you?"
"You've said you disavow the criminal code. Is that true?"
"How come I can't believe that?"
Morris wasn't expecting this kind of confrontation. "I don't know why you can't believe it," he said weakly. "If you look at my record in prison, I haven't been disciplined in over 22 years."
Morris' record is, in fact, nothing short of extraordinary.
When he entered San Quentin, he wasn't somebody who stood out much. He didn't often get into it with other prisoners. He didn't cause too much trouble. And, like almost everybody else, he claimed he was innocent. "I'm here for another man's beef that I didn't do," he'd say.
Then one day in 1981, Morris made a $10 bet with another prisoner that the Raiders would defeat the Eagles in the Super Bowl. The Raiders won, but the guy didn't want to pay, so instead he stabbed Morris in the chest.
"Two inches to the left, and that would have been it for me," Morris said.
In the infirmary, he got to thinking about his life. He hadn't really accomplished anything, he realized. Hadn't done anything of value. He had never gotten to know his son, Jamal, who was born a month after he shot Wheeler. He had brothers and sisters who admired him and visited him, but most people who knew his name knew him only as a cop killer. He didn't like that.
Morris began applying for classes and activities within the prison walls. In the late '80s, he was selected from a large applicant pool to work for SQTV, the prison's television network. Soon after, he was accepted into an Antioch University bachelor of arts program within the prison. According to guards who knew Morris back then, he began developing good relationships with his teachers, and his attitude began to shift.
J.T. Evans, a corrections officer who has worked at the prison for 29 years, noticed a "profound change" in Morris. Evans delegated responsibilities to him, such as the organization of several yard concerts. In 1992, Morris became a peer health educator. In 1994, he became the cofacilitator of a substance abuse program. Morris then enrolled in San Quentin Film School, where guards say he displayed leadership and set a good example for the younger participants.
Morris eventually earned his degree in communication from Antioch, becoming one of the last inmates in California to do so. Armed with his education and newfound sense of self-worth, Morris decided he wanted to do more.
He began having conversations with a guard named Vernell Crittendon about issues facing the black community. They talked about how those issues can be dealt with on a policy level, and Crittendon — who went on to become a widely respected lieutenant and press spokesman — was impressed with Morris' grasp of the problems facing urban youth. The two decided to work on reducing violence and recidivism from the inside out.
Morris knew that simply returning criminals into the community en masse — as the state will soon be doing — was bad news. He had gone through it himself, and was well aware of a certain criminal code many people continue to live by.
Before you can change people's behavior, Morris recognized, you have to change the way they think. To start that process, in 2002 he cofounded No More Tears, an antiviolence program providing a supportive group environment for inmates to discuss their feelings and receive wisdom in hopes of interrupting the cycle of recidivism and violence. Morris facilitates weekly workshops, which are packed with volunteers and prominent visitors.
Morris didn't stop there. In 2003, he, another inmate, and Crittendon started REAL Choices, another antiviolence program targeting urban youth, for whom they provided prison mentors. REAL stands for Reaching and Expanding Adolescent Lives.
Morris was already a spiritual and emotional adviser to other prisoners. But after he cofounded the inmate programs, word of his charisma and good works spread outside San Quentin. He became friends with writers, doctors, religious leaders, activists, and politicians, including Oakland City Councilwoman Desley Brooks and Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson.
Those who gravitate to Morris tend to have a few things in common: They believe prison should be about reform, not punishment. And they believe he should be given the chance to take his programs outside the prison walls.
Woodford, the former warden, is one of those. "I know Mr. Morris's crime is violent," she wrote in a recommendation that he be granted parole. "I also know he has caused unbelievable pain to the families and friends of his victim. This he can never change. The only issue within his power to change is himself, and I believe he has done that."
Ask defense attorneys, victims'-rights advocates, lawmakers, prisoners, and anyone else who has to deal with California's parole system, and they'll all tell you the same thing: It's godawful. A 2008 editorial in The New York Times even described it as "perhaps the most counterproductive and ill-conceived parole system in the United States."
The main problem is that the system is simply too big. Each year, the state paroles about 138,000 inmates, overloading parole officers with as many as 100 parolees each, about two-thirds of whom end up back in prison.
Very few parolees are murderers serving life sentences. Under Governor Gray Davis, who was notoriously tough on crime, just eight murderers out of the hundreds of potential parolees were released. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has been far more permissive, but many lifers have gotten a fair shake only after case law changed the requirements for denying parole.
Until 2008, the commissioners often denied parole based on the heinousness of an offense. Defense attorneys argued that this wasn't fair; that year, they prevailed in appellate court via the case of Sandra Davis Lawrence. After the state Supreme Court refused to intervene, Lawrence was released on parole, and the board was required to provide additional evidence that an inmate posed an unreasonable risk if released. That was when the phrase "inmate lacks insight" became popular at parole hearings.
Attorney Keith Wattley says his clients are routinely denied with this vague assertion. Furthermore, he says, the board is unfairly stacked with conservative commissioners. The state penal code requires that commissioners come from a cross-section of backgrounds that reflects the population of California, but at the moment, nearly all are or have been police officers, investigators, sheriffs, wardens, and correctional officers.
In 2006, Wattley started his Oakland law firm, Uncommon Law, to combat what he felt were arbitrary denials of parole for deserving individuals. He often takes pro bono cases he deems important; Morris' was one of those. In fact, Wattley says, Morris' case has a lot going for it beyond the fact that the inmate is rehabilitated.
For one thing, Morris is old. Research has shown that elderly inmates are significantly less likely to commit further crimes. They also cost the state two to three times more money to keep incarcerated. (Taxpayers recently financed Morris' first hip replacement, and he needs a second one.) For this reason, the state's Legislative Analyst Office, a nonpartisan body, recommended in 2003 that thousands of older inmates be paroled early.
Another bonus for Morris: He has plenty of housing and job offers, so a transition to life outside wouldn't be difficult. One woman even offered to buy him clothing.
At the parole hearing, Gillingham had turned over the proceedings to the deputy commissioner, Linda Rose, who presented the psychological evaluation. Morris' overall risk for violence was low, she said, but there was a troubling diagnosis that seemed to hang in the air long after it was uttered: Antisocial personality disorder.
It's not that Morris currently displays such tendencies. He was diagnosed with the disorder just after he entered prison in the late '70s. But with antisocial personality disorder, the diagnosis never goes away. It will appear fresh on each of his psychological evaluations for the rest of his life.
Rose brought up the crime partner issue yet again, and mistakenly said that a psychiatrist had expressed concern about it. In fact, Wattley countered, the psychiatrist had done no such thing. "The decision to avoid naming the individual is somewhat confusing," Wattley read from the doctor's evaluation. "Unfortunately, there is no way to objectively determine whether this is a relevant variable in determining how fully Mr. Morris has explored his underlying motivations."
Given his turn to speak, Contra Costa County deputy district attorney Jack Waddell immediately accused Morris of not having insight into his crime. Although he acknowledged that the inmate had an impressive number of letters of support (29, to be exact, and nine from current and former prison staff), he also called Morris a "media darling" and questioned whether his good works were merely part of a veneer disguising a still-dangerous man. "The prior record of the inmate is scary, to say the least," he said.
Wattley countered that Morris should not be judged solely on something he did 32 years ago. For an inmate to examine his own motives and history wasn't the same as trying to make excuses, he contended.
The victim's family members, including June Wheeler, were the last to speak. "Lonnie, you have caused us much pain, and we will never forgive you for what you have done," she read from her statement. "We were all sentenced to a life without Bob, and we want justice."
A nephew of Wheeler's took a final opportunity to bring up the crime partner issue again. "Lonnie Morris says he respects the rights of others, and yet he won't turn over his partner," he said. "He won't allow us to take that man off the streets. To me, that shows a continued criminal mindset. He's not doing what's right."
At around 9 p.m., Gillingham called everyone back into the courtroom. The board had reached a decision.
Scooting back to his chair, Morris searched Gillingham's face for clues. She remained focused on paperwork before her, perhaps thinking about the larger issues.
In her hands was the fate of a man who had committed society's most egregious crime: He killed somebody. An officer of the law. For no good reason. Now she was supposed to make a decision based on one thing and one thing alone: If released, does this man pose an unreasonable threat?
The answer is pretty simple. Morris certainly doesn't appear to be dangerous. But there are deeper questions. Should society let a repentant murderer free, even as he refuses to fully submit to society's laws? How long must he wait for this privilege? How does society know when he's truly ready?
When thinking about whether Morris deserves his freedom, it's also hard to ignore the possibility that with his incredible story of redemption, he might make a difference in people's lives on the outside.
Without meeting the inmate's eyes, Gillingham called the meeting back to order. "In the matter of Lonnie Morris, M-O-R-R-I-S," she said, "the panel has reviewed all relevant information and determined that the prisoner poses a present risk of danger, a current, unreasonable risk, if released."
And that was that. For Morris, a parole denial used to mean waiting a year and then trying again. But in late 2008, voters passed Marsy's Law, a victim's-rights bill guaranteeing that prisoners denied parole cannot go back before the board for at least three years. So he will have to wait until Dec. 9, 2012.
Looking like he'd been punched, Morris retreated to a bench and waited to be taken back to the clinic, where he has been recovering from his hip replacement. Morris felt more certain than ever that he had been denied parole because he wouldn't give up his crime partner. But that realization didn't chip away one bit at his resolve to keep the secret. "My principles are saying that's the right thing to do," he said. "I am who I am, and they can't take that away from me."