In re Dannenberg, No. S111029.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Writing for the CourtBAXTER, J.
Citation34 Cal.4th 1061,104 P.3d 783,23 Cal.Rptr.3d 417
PartiesIn re John E. DANNENBERG on Habeas Corpus.
Decision Date24 January 2005
Docket NumberNo. S111029.

23 Cal.Rptr.3d 417
34 Cal.4th 1061
104 P.3d 783

In re John E. DANNENBERG on Habeas Corpus

No. S111029.

Supreme Court of California.

January 24, 2005.

Rehearing Denied February 23, 2005.1

Certiorari Denied October 3, 2005.


23 Cal.Rptr.3d 419
Bill Lockyer, Attorney General, Robert R. Anderson, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Paul D. Gifford, Assistant Attorney General, Allen R. Crown, Acting Assistant Attorney General, Susan Duncan Lee and Matthew D. Mandelbaum, Deputy Attorneys General, for Appellant the People

Bonnie M. Dumanis, District Attorney (San Diego), George M. Palmer, Head Deputy District Attorney, Richard J. Sachs, Deputy Distrust Attorney; and David R. LaBahn for California District Attorneys Association as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Appellant the People.

Kathleen Kahn, San Francisco, under appointment by the Supreme Court, for Respondent John E. Dannenberg.

Certiorari Denied October 3, 2005. See 126 S.Ct. 92.

23 Cal.Rptr.3d 418
BAXTER, J

In this case involving a second degree murderer, we consider how the Board of Prison Terms (Board or BPT) may determine that a prisoner with an "indeterminate" life sentence, having served the minimum period of confinement required by statute, is nonetheless presently unsuitable for the setting of a fixed parole release date because the gravity of the inmate's

23 Cal.Rptr.3d 420
offense indicates a continuing danger to public safety. The issue is whether the Board may refuse a parole date on this ground only after evaluating the offender's crime against others of similar gravity and against its own uniform-term "matrices," and concluding that the offense is particularly egregious by those comparative standards, or whether it need conduct such a comparative analysis only after it determines that the inmate is suitable for parole

John E. Dannenberg is serving a sentence of 15 years to life for the second degree murder of his wife, committed in 1985. He beat her with a pipe wrench during a domestic argument. Thereafter, she drowned in the bathtub. Exactly how this happened is unclear. However, despite Dannenberg's insistent denials, the circumstances permit an inference that, while she was helpless from the beating, Dannenberg placed or forced her head under water, or at least allowed it to remain there, until she died.

In 1999, as on several prior occasions, the Board declined to grant Dannenberg a parole release date. The Board concluded that Dannenberg's crime indicated a continuing public danger, thus making him presently unsuitable for parole, because the murder was "especially callous and cruel" and was committed for a trivial reason. Following its long-standing formal policy, the Board made its unsuitability determination by confining its examination to the particular circumstances of Dannenberg's crime, without measuring his offense against other homicides, or against the Board's own uniform-term norms for second degree murderers.

The Court of Appeal held that the Board proceeded incorrectly. Construing the pertinent statute, Penal Code section 3041,2 the court ruled that once an indeterminate life prisoner reaches minimum parole eligibility, the Board must set a fixed date for parole release, pursuant to the principle of "uniform terms" for crimes of similar gravity, and with due regard for the statutory minimum term for the inmate's offense, unless it finds the prisoner's crime "particularly egregious" in comparison to other offenses of the same class. Accordingly, the court remanded the case for a new parole hearing under proper standards.

We conclude that the Court of Appeal erred. While subdivision (a) of section 3041 states that indeterminate life (i.e., life-maximum) sentencees should "normally" receive "uniform" parole dates for similar crimes, subdivision (b) provides that this policy applies "unless [the Board] determines" that a release date cannot presently be set because the particular offender's crime and/or criminal history raise "public safety" concerns requiring further indefinite incarceration. (Italics added.) Nothing in the statute states or suggests that the Board must evaluate the case under standards of term uniformity before exercising its authority to deny a parole date on grounds the particular offender's criminality presents a continuing public danger.

Indeed, under other provisions of law, the Board cannot grant a parole date to a life-maximum prisoner without considering the concerns expressed by interested persons, including victims, their families, and law enforcement officials involved in the case, that this particular offender is still too dangerous, by virtue of the crimes he or she has committed, to be scheduled for release. If a Board panel does set a parole date, the Governor may request review by the full Board on grounds that the

23 Cal.Rptr.3d 421
panel did not fully consider the crime's gravity, or public safety, in which case a majority of the full Board must vote to uphold the panel's decision. In the case of a murderer, the Governor may overturn a grant of parole on any basis the Board could have used to deny it. The statutory scheme, viewed as a whole, thus clearly elevates a life prisoner's individual suitability for parole above the inmate's expectancy in early setting of a fixed and "uniform" parole date.

Moreover, despite recent specific attention to section 3041 and the Board's parole procedures, the Legislature has not disturbed the Board's long-standing formal policy that a determination of individual suitability must precede the setting of a "uniform" parole release date. The Legislature therefore appears to have accepted the Board's interpretation of the statute.

Accordingly, we conclude that the Board, exercising its traditional broad discretion, may protect public safety in each discrete case by considering the dangerous implications of a life-maximum prisoner's crime individually. While the Board must point to factors beyond the minimum elements of the crime for which the inmate was committed, it need engage in no further comparative analysis before concluding that the particular facts of the offense make it unsafe, at that time, to fix a date for the prisoner's release. The BPT acts properly in determining unsuitability, and the inmate receives all constitutional process due, if the Board provides the requisite procedural rights, applies relevant standards, and renders a decision supported by "some evidence."

Of course, no inmate may be imprisoned beyond a period that is constitutionally proportionate to the commitment offense or offenses. But that limitation will rarely apply to those serious offenses and offenders currently subject by statute to life-maximum imprisonment. Its potential application in occasional individual cases does not require the BPT, under the current statutory scheme, to set fixed release dates for all life prisoners except those whose crimes are most "egregious" compared to others of the same class. Instead, the Board may decline to do so in an individual case if it concludes, on relevant grounds with support in the evidence, that the grant of a parole date is premature for reasons of public safety. Life inmates who believe that such Board decisions have kept them confined beyond the time the Constitution allows for their particular criminal conduct may take their claims to court.

Here the Board's conclusion that Dannenberg remains too dangerous for parole because his offense was especially callous and cruel, and was committed for a trivial reason, relied upon facts beyond the minimum elements of second degree murder, and was supported by some evidence. The Board's decision to deny parole thus comports with the law.

We will therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeal.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

In 1986, Dannenberg was convicted by a jury of second degree murder and was sentenced to the prescribed term of 15 years to life (§ 190, subd. (a)). With allowance for applicable pretrial and prison conduct credits, his minimum eligible parole release date was June 25, 1996. In parole hearings conducted in 1994, 1997, and 1999, the Board declined to set an actual parole release date for Dannenberg, each time relying primarily on the nature of the murder itself to find him presently unsuitable.

23 Cal.Rptr.3d 422
In the 1999 proceeding, at issue here, the Board considered the following circumstances of the commitment offense, drawn from a staff report prepared in 1994 for Dannenberg's initial parole hearing:3

Dannenberg and his wife experienced severe domestic difficulties for a number of years. They had sought marriage counseling, and the victim had been seen by psychiatric personnel for complaints including violence to her and her children.

On May 15, 1985, around 9:00 a.m., law enforcement authorities were summoned to the couple's home in Los Altos Hills. In a bathroom, they found the victim's body, draped over the side of the bathtub with her head underwater in the tub. Dannenberg had several scratches on his body, a deep bite mark on his left middle finger, and cuts on his neck, eyelid, and face. An autopsy disclosed that the victim's body had various cuts, abrasions, and puncture wounds, consistent with being hit on numerous occasions. One of the wounds matched the markings of a half-pound pipe wrench. The autopsy report concluded that although the victim had been hit many times on the head, the cause of death was drowning.

Dannenberg gave investigating officers the following account: Around 7:00 a.m., he was drawing a bath for his son when he noticed debris in the drain that could cause a clog. He procured a pipe wrench and a screwdriver to fix a leaky toilet valve. "During this time[,] he evidently said something to his wife" about the drain. She came into the bathroom and picked up the screwdriver. A heated argument ensued. Screaming that she "wanted him dead," the victim jabbed the screwdriver at Dannenberg, cutting his arm,...

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471 practice notes
  • McCarns v. Dexter, No. EDCV 05-1047-SGL(RC).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. Central District of California
    • January 28, 2008
    ...requires a more lengthy period of incarceration for" the prisoner. Hayward, at 542 (citations omitted); see also In re Dannenberg, 34 Cal.4th 1061, 1078, 23 Cal.Rptr.3d 417, 426, 104 P.3d 783 ("[I]ndeterminate sentencees may serve up to life in prison, but they become eligible for parole co......
  • In re Stoneroad, A132591
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • April 18, 2013
    ...[it] set forth in Rosenkrantz, supra, 29 Cal.4th 616, 128 Cal.Rptr.2d 104, 59 P.3d 174 and thereafter applied in In re Dannenberg (2008) 34 Cal.4th 1061, 23 Cal.Rptr.3d 417, 104 P.3d 783 [ ( Dannenberg) ].” ( Prather, supra, 50 Cal.4th at p. 251, 112 Cal.Rptr.3d 291, 234 P.3d 541.) Lawrence......
  • Gomez v. Superior Court of Lassen Cnty., No. S179176.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • June 18, 2012
    ...not only statutory or constitutional violations, but also violations of administrative regulations. (See, e.g., In re Dannenberg (2005) 34 Cal.4th 1061, 23 Cal.Rptr.3d 417, 104 P.3d 783 [challenging Board of Prison Terms' failure to apply its own “matrix” regulations to parole-eligible inma......
  • In re Palmer, A154269
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • April 5, 2019
    ...... violates the cruel or unusual punishment clause ( art. I, § 17 ) of the California Constitution." ( In re Dannenberg (2005) 34 Cal.4th 1061, 1096, 23 Cal.Rptr.3d 417, 104 P.3d 783 ( Dannenberg ).) The proportionality of a sentence turns entirely on the culpability of the offender as mea......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
471 cases
  • McCarns v. Dexter, No. EDCV 05-1047-SGL(RC).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. Central District of California
    • January 28, 2008
    ...requires a more lengthy period of incarceration for" the prisoner. Hayward, at 542 (citations omitted); see also In re Dannenberg, 34 Cal.4th 1061, 1078, 23 Cal.Rptr.3d 417, 426, 104 P.3d 783 ("[I]ndeterminate sentencees may serve up to life in prison, but they become eligible for parole co......
  • In re Stoneroad, A132591
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • April 18, 2013
    ...[it] set forth in Rosenkrantz, supra, 29 Cal.4th 616, 128 Cal.Rptr.2d 104, 59 P.3d 174 and thereafter applied in In re Dannenberg (2008) 34 Cal.4th 1061, 23 Cal.Rptr.3d 417, 104 P.3d 783 [ ( Dannenberg) ].” ( Prather, supra, 50 Cal.4th at p. 251, 112 Cal.Rptr.3d 291, 234 P.3d 541.) Lawrence......
  • Gomez v. Superior Court of Lassen Cnty., No. S179176.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • June 18, 2012
    ...not only statutory or constitutional violations, but also violations of administrative regulations. (See, e.g., In re Dannenberg (2005) 34 Cal.4th 1061, 23 Cal.Rptr.3d 417, 104 P.3d 783 [challenging Board of Prison Terms' failure to apply its own “matrix” regulations to parole-eligible inma......
  • In re Palmer, A154269
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • April 5, 2019
    ...... violates the cruel or unusual punishment clause ( art. I, § 17 ) of the California Constitution." ( In re Dannenberg (2005) 34 Cal.4th 1061, 1096, 23 Cal.Rptr.3d 417, 104 P.3d 783 ( Dannenberg ).) The proportionality of a sentence turns entirely on the culpability of the offender as mea......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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