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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?

Wednesday, Jan 27 2010

Page 4 of 4

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."

About The Author

Ashley Harrell


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