Thursday, December 21, 2023

The Never-Ending Story Alta Magazine

 This article was published by Alta magazine

The Never-Ending Story

Former Manson family member Bruce Davis is one of more than a hundred high-profile California lifers who face repeated parole denials and gubernatorial reversals.



Editor’s note: This is a co-authored article. Incarcerated journalist Joe Garcia reported from inside San Quentin State Prison; free-world writer Kate McQueen interviewed sources and wrangled documents on the outside. Garcia serves as the article’s narrator, but the writing itself was a joint effort, with both authors touching all parts of the text.

When Bruce Davis stepped off a transfer bus at San Quentin State Prison in 2019, the news of his arrival spread quickly through the incarcerated community. A Manson family member now lived among us. Helter skelter. Swastikas carved into foreheads. Fanatical female cultism. All the hype surrounding Charles Manson still had pull 50 years after the fact, even here.

As an incarcerated journalist, I’ll admit my curiosity was triggered too. How many reporters can say they walk the yard or sit down to breakfast with the person sometimes referred to as Manson’s right-hand man? Though not involved in the famously gruesome killing of Hollywood star Sharon Tate, Davis was found guilty of two other 1969 Manson family murders, of musician Gary Hinman and stunt person Donald “Shorty” Shea. I approached Davis with aspirations of delving inside the mind of a famous killer.

What I found instead was altogether more shocking to me. Our frequent conversations revealed a humble, contrite, down-to-earth old man who had confronted his demons long ago and spent decades working to resolve the dark implications of his own criminal acts. Davis is 81 years old, a born-again Christian whose soft speech is often broken by coughs from emphysema. When he arrived at San Quentin, he moved as if he were made of glass, one fully replaced hip slowed by another badly in need of repair. It’s hard to imagine anyone feeling scared by him today.

California’s Board of Parole Hearings had also seen what I witnessed. The board had found Davis suitable for parole right before his transfer to San Quentin. It was his 32nd parole hearing and the sixth consecutive time that the BPH decided he was not a threat to public safety.

Parole is the conditional release that rounds out an indeterminate “life term” prison sentence like Davis’s, and like mine. I’ve been incarcerated since 2003, when I shot and killed a fellow drug dealer. And like Davis, in the years since my sentencing, I’ve spent countless hours working to understand what led me to commit my crime and preparing for life outside the walls.

In exchange for this type of rehabilitative effort, parole is, in theory, a promise that a lifer may earn their freedom after they’ve served their minimum term. In practice, it is a system that transfers the decisions about release out of the hands of a judge and into the hands of a governor-appointed board that operates with considerable latitude. And in addition to the BPH, lifers in California face another hurdle, the gubernatorial veto, a privilege that only one other state—Oklahoma—permits. Before Davis’s transfer, then–newly inaugurated governor Gavin Newsom reversed the board’s recommendation, becoming the third consecutive governor to deny Davis release.

Newsom’s decision surprised none of the outside journalists I spoke to. Nikki Meredith, a retired Bay Area journalist and the author of The Manson Women and Me: Monsters, Morality, and Murder, figured that letting any of the Manson family members go was a risk that verged on political suicide.

William J. Drummond and John C. Eagan, two other veteran reporters, said the same thing when I expressed concern about Davis’s situation. Drummond recalled how his Los Angeles Times front-page story on a crashed plane at the California-Nevada border was bumped to below the fold when the news of the Tate-LaBianca murders broke. That kind of crime, when it happens, eclipses all other news.

It’s a tough balancing act to take seriously the damages caused by crimes and also make it possible for people guilty of crimes to eventually go home. It’s also the law. California has had a parole system since 1893. In 2005, the state legislature reemphasized California’s long-standing commitment to parole by renaming the Board of Prison Terms as the Board of Parole Hearings, expanding the hearing board, and adding the last two words to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation name. The state’s parole statutes stipulate that parole “shall normally” be granted. But what rehabilitation actually means, the legislature hasn’t defined.

Today, about 33,000 people are serving life sentences in California state prisons. Lifers like Davis, who face repeated parole denials and gubernatorial reversals, are the ultimate stress test for the state’s justice system—one invested in more than retribution. For these high-profile lifers, achieving their physical release from prison requires them to be not only rehabilitated but also freed from the aura surrounding an infamous crime.

In order for that to happen, another story, one about the hard work of preparing for release, needs to take its place.

Few crimes have been as culturally significant as the Manson family’s murders.

Committed in the summer of 1969, they fanned the flames of an already explosive year. That July, humans landed on the moon for the first time. War raged in Vietnam. Black Power ascended within the civil rights movement. Hippies descended onto a Woodstock farm. And Nixon had just begun his tenure in the Oval Office. By the time members of the Manson family killed their first victim, Hinman, in a robbery attempt on July 27, 1969, Angelenos were already on edge.

Writer Joan Didion, then living in Hollywood, was one of them. Despite many carefree moments, “there were odd things going around town,” Didion reported in her essay “The White Album.” “This mystical flirtation with the idea of ‘sin’—this sense that it was possible to go ‘too far,’ and that many people were doing it—was very much with us.”

Hinman’s death didn’t make the Los Angeles Times. But news of the August 9 murders at Tate’s house on Cielo Drive “traveled like brushfire,” Didion remembered. Five victims shot, stabbed, or throttled in what appeared to be a ritualistic mass murder. The murders of supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, the following day further fueled the hysteria. By the time the final victim, Shea, disappeared on August 25, panic had set in.

From August until the indictments of Manson family members in December, Los Angeles was gripped by the apparently chance sequence of events surrounding the crimes, their terrible violence, and the circus atmosphere of the trial. Didion was not alone in feeling certain that the year’s crimes “did not fit into any narrative I knew.”

Her brother-in-law, journalist Dominick Dunne, made similar observations in his 1999 memoir. “The shock waves that went through the town were beyond anything I had ever seen before,” he wrote. “People were convinced that the rich and famous of the community were in peril. Children were sent out of town. Guards were hired. Steve McQueen packed a gun when he went to [Manson family victim] Jay Sebring’s funeral.”

It’s in the context of these inexplicable crimes that Didion wrote “The White Album” ’s iconic first sentence: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” And out of the fog of fear, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi spun the first significant story around the Manson family, one that recognized our deep societal need for monsters.

“These defendants are not human beings, ladies and gentlemen,” Bugliosi told the jury during the first Tate-LaBianca trial. “These defendants are human monsters, human mutations.”

This interpretation still seems to exert a cultural hold. It appears, notably, in Newsom’s 2019 statement reversing Davis’s parole grant. “Mr. Davis was part of one of the most notorious criminal cults in California history,” it reads. “It is difficult to overstate how impactful these crimes were on the people of California. They left a legacy of terror and pain that continues to haunt the state today.”

Ask anyone on the street whether they can identify a Manson family member by name, and the answer is likely no. But haunting can take many forms. The current one, congealed and reworked by popular culture into a “Manson-industrial complex,” as cultural critic Peter Biskind called it, has produced some 60-odd books, feature films, documentaries, and TV series as well as an opera.

The fresh onslaught of retrospectives delivered by the 50th anniversary of the murders didn’t add much clarity. But they spoke to the continued hold the story has on the American public. Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 film about the Manson era, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, with its evocative fairy-tale title and revenge-fantasy ending—in which the bodies knifed and bloodied are those of dirty hippies rather than the beautiful Hollywood elite—did offer one piece of insight. It’s an alternate history that channels the memory of the trauma and a desire for retribution that is difficult to escape.

One of Davis’s first appearances in the public narrative of the Manson family’s crimes occurred on December 3, 1970, when he surrendered outside Los Angeles’s Hall of Justice. A front-page photo in the Los Angeles Times captured the moment as Davis—bearded and barefoot and grinning, with a freshly carved X displayed just between his eyebrows—disappeared into the court building. Fifteen months later, on March 14, 1972, a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder, after 12 days of deliberation. The judge sentenced the 28-year-old to seven years to life in prison.

The story of what led him to surrender at that courthouse was one of the first things I hoped to learn from Davis when I started meeting with him in San Quentin’s common areas, wherever we could find a peaceful spot for conversation. From these talks, and his parole transcripts, a far different picture of Davis emerged.

A Louisiana boy who enrolled briefly at the University of Tennessee before hitchhiking west in his early 20s, Davis worked odd jobs to make ends meet. Wherever he could, he’d rely on his considerable skills as a welder, a trade passed down to him by his father. These skills were the only source of positive memories of an otherwise mean-spirited alcoholic.

For Davis, the 1960s were a time of drug-addled absence, which he looks back on as “aimless, desperate, seeking.” It was in this spirit of disjointed wanderlust that he first encountered Manson at the cult’s Topanga Canyon complex in the spring of 1968—lounging in a tree-shaded antique bathtub with several young women. Davis had been taken there by a mutual friend, and the two stayed for a while, playing music, doing drugs, enjoying the female company. He was immediately attracted to Manson, whom he saw as a charming, talented person with lots of musician friends.

A year later, after some months of traveling, Davis settled in with the Manson family, even as the situation changed from peace and love to something harder. When the group, who otherwise lived off stolen credit cards, decided to try out robbery on a larger scale, Davis played a role as Manson’s driver. Some of the girls got it into their heads that Hinman, a young music teacher who lived nearby in Topanga Canyon, had an inheritance they could take. In late July, the group invaded Hinman’s home with extortion in mind. After days of threats and torture, Hinman was stabbed and died from wounds to the chest.

Davis said he did not know in advance about or participate in the attacks on the Tate and LaBianca households a few weeks later. But he told me that when he found out what his companions had done, it didn’t change his perspective: “It didn’t mean a thing as long as I had what I wanted—sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll.”

He was involved in the death of their last victim, Shea, a general hand at Spahn Ranch, where the family had moved its compound. Manson was convinced Shea was a “snitch.” No one asked questions when Manson organized Charles “Tex” Watson, Steve “Clem” Grogan, Bill Vance, and Davis to get Shea into a car on the pretense of picking up new car parts in town. On the drive, they pulled off to the side of the Santa Susana Pass, an old road between the San Fernando and Simi Valleys, and attacked him in the underbrush. Shea was stabbed by Manson and the others. Grogan delivered the fatal blow. They buried him in late August, near Spahn Ranch. Shea’s body was eventually found with information from Grogan, who described the burial place in return for early release, in 1985.

Davis recalled that during Shea’s murder, he walked away, down the hill and up a creek bed to the ranch. He went into one of the bunkhouses and slept for a long time. But the shock wore off within a few days, and until Manson’s arrest on October 12, 1969, he carried on with life at the ranch. Afterward, Davis hid out with a couple of young women in San Bernardino. Then one morning, he woke up and knew he was going to turn himself in. “That was my first good decision in a long time—I suppose my first step toward rehabilitation, in kind of a left-handed way,” Davis said. “I didn’t realize the implications of it. I just knew that I couldn’t live on the run.

I couldn’t hang out with Davis for long and not cross paths with someone who knew him from California Men’s Colony (CMC), in San Luis Obispo, where he served the majority of his sentence. As a nonchurchgoing person, it didn’t occur to me right away that Davis’s friends view him as an essential presence in their Christian community. Whenever they talk about Davis, they invariably mention his unwavering faith and the impression he’s made on their own religious experiences.

One of them is Derry Brown. Brotha D, as he’s affectionately known, never hesitated to stop whatever he was doing and hug Davis warmly when he saw him. In other prison situations, it’s unheard of for men of different ethnicities and races—in this case, one Black, one white—to display their camaraderie so freely on the yard. But the sincerity of Brown and Davis’s friendship superseded racial boundaries.

Before arriving at CMC in 2001, Brown had heard all the prison rumors about one of Charles Manson’s followers being a pillar of the church, so he knew who Davis was before he got to know him personally. They fellowshipped as brothers, and, Brown told me, “I came to love him as a brother.”

“It’s a trip to juxtapose his journey with Manson’s,” Brown said. “Just the other day, there was some footage of Charles Manson on TV way back before he died, and he just looked so ancient—not at all vibrant and full of life like Bruce. It’s obvious that Bruce’s faith has kept him going strong. That’s why he’s still around.” Brown was close with Davis at CMC and then at San Quentin; he has since been released on parole.

It’s true that Davis is one of San Quentin’s most visible elderly residents. Before his latest hip replacement surgery, in September 2021, he made it a point to come out to the yard for a few hours each day to conduct impromptu Bible studies. Sometimes he’d sit on an upside-down five-gallon plastic bucket with a worn woolen blanket folded on top, surrounded by handfuls of men, some he’d known for years and others he’d only just met. The sloped length of faded asphalt overlooking the yard became his pulpit. Beside him lay his drab aquamarine guitar case and his state-issued mesh laundry bag, in which he transported his treasured leather Bible.

Other times—depending on the weather and San Quentin’s yard schedule—Davis stood alone, strumming his guitar and rasping serenely. “The Lord has got my back,” went the signature verse of his own original song. “The Holy Ghost is pulling my slack.… The Devil had me down. And Jesus is putting my feet on solid ground.”

For many who spend time with Davis, his faith is what matters. Roberto Morales, for one, did not know who Davis was when he caught one of his sermons at CMC in 2013. But Morales liked what he heard and signed up for Davis’s Bible study curriculum.

“It was the first time in my life I was meeting an authentic Christian,” Morales, who is now at California State Prison, Corcoran, said. “A man who’s lived his faith. He lives and breathes Jesus Christ. And he has this quiet sense of dignity, very unassuming. To me, he’s just a friend. I can’t imagine him being involved [with the Manson family].”

Nearing the end of the base term of his 35-years-to-life sentence, 65-year-old Morales is facing his own BPH hurdles as a three-striker struck out on burglary charges. When he walked side by side with Davis on mild sunny mornings, their bright smiles and conversation seemed almost out of place along the dusty cement track. Somehow, Morales’s broad six-three, 225-pound frame never dwarfed Davis.

“He’s like this little hillbilly gnome, but you cannot avoid being impacted by him,” Morales said. “He’s helped me realize the transcendence of the Christian journey.”

He considers Davis’s repeated BPH denials morally unconscionable.

“It’s so sad,” Morales said. “There’s a lot of men like Bruce in prison. They just want to go fishing, go feed the pigeons in the park. We give lip service to rehabilitation, but the idea of redemption—that’s a whole different ball game there. God’s honest truth—I’d do five more years in prison if they’d just let Bruce go.”

Davis has been parole-eligible since 1977. He first went before the BPH in 1978. His parole was denied. The same thing happened in 1981, 1982, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008.

Then the unexpected occurred. He was found suitable for release in 2010, a decision subsequently vetoed by then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The same process—the board grant, the governor veto—took place again in 2012, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2019, and 2021.

The number of times Davis has gone before the board is rare. His need to go is not. The opportunity for parole is a reality for the majority of the people convicted of felonies in the United States. According to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit working for decarceration, most states make use of indeterminate sentencing. Of them, California holds the largest lifer population, around 30 percent of the state’s total prison population.

Parole hearings are a tough hurdle, and with the additional obstacle of the governor veto in California, historically, few have managed to clear it. Until 2008, the number of prisoners found parole-suitable by the BPH remained below 8 percent, while the gubernatorial-reversal rate was high, between 70 and 100 percent.

Then the Supreme Court of California intervened, deciding in the landmark 2008 case re Lawrence that the BPH and the governor must provide “some evidence” of a prisoner’s current dangerousness beyond the original crime to justify parole denial. Thanks to another case decided that same year, re Shaputis, the nature of that evidence can be vague; a “lack of insight” could be enough to constitute a threat to the public.

Still, the number of lifers who have been paroled has steadily increased. The board released 1,201 life prisoners in 2020, its highest number ever. More than 10,000 lifers have been released since re Lawrence.

The BPH is made up of 21 full-time, governor-appointed commissioners and dozens of deputy commissioners who serve as civil servants. Working in pairs, one commissioner and one deputy commissioner preside over a parole-suitability hearing, which proceeds in an interview-like fashion over the course of several hours. In addition to the commissioners, the prisoner, and their attorney, a few others may be present—a representative from the district attorney’s office, victims or their representatives, and, in limited circumstances, members of the media.

Parole hearings are not trials. They do not introduce new evidence. They do not relitigate crimes. They are not supposed to dwell on the nature of the crime or what gets referred to as “unchanging historical factors.” Rather, their purpose—set by re Lawrence and re Shaputis—is to assess how prepared a prisoner is to reenter society.

Parole hearings are, however, a deeply narrative process. And, as in trials, there are often two stories vying for control. One is the story of rehabilitation presented by the prisoner. And the other is what UC Law San Francisco professor Hadar Aviram refers to in her book Yesterday’s Monsters: The Manson Family Cases and the Illusion of Parole as the “moral memory” of the crime, contained in the statements from victims or their representatives and the district attorney’s office.

In Davis’s case, this other set of narrators includes a member of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office and victim representatives, who entered the BPH process in 2012. Debra Tate, a younger sister of Manson family victim Sharon Tate, began appearing as a victim representative of the Hinman family at Davis’s hearings after he was first found suitable for parole.

Since re Shaputis, success with the BPH largely hinges on a prisoner’s ability to demonstrate “insight” into their crime. In other words, what matters is how coherently a person can explain the circumstances of their crime, how genuinely they can express remorse, and how fully they can present a transformed version of themselves. As Aviram makes clear, it’s a subjective assessment based significantly on the interview performance.

The first time Davis was recommended for parole, the level of detail he offered in his story seemed to be a deciding factor. In his decision, presiding commissioner Robert Doyle said that Davis articulated a level of insight that “didn’t happen overnight.… It was a slow comer.”

From that hearing forward, his ability to delineate pivotal moments kept the parole grants coming. Over the years, Davis has reflected on a difficult relationship with his father. Then there was his decision to become sober in 1974, while at Folsom State Prison, which opened him up to a whole new world of emotions. He’s also talked about witnessing the murder of a young Black man in prison around the same time. Looking at that youth covered in blood, Davis told me during one of our long talks, “all of a sudden, I realized what I’d done, and I knew that I really deserved to be in prison.”

For Davis, though, the most profound moment in his story was his conversion to Christianity the same year he became sober. An inner voice told him to look out at the yard. Everyone in Folsom’s recreational area suddenly transformed into images from a dark and eerie end of days. “They were cloaked with death. It really frightened me,” Davis said. “When that light came on, it showed all my dirt. It exposed me.” Believing he deserved to die for his sins, he threw his hands up to the heavens and gave himself over to the Lord.

In the years following, Davis studied and embraced the Bible. He found a home in the Christian church at CMC and eventually earned a doctorate in theology from Bethany Theological Seminary. For his dissertation, Davis wrote “Spiritual Manual for Maturing Christians,” a curriculum of 10 chapters that he has taught to others ever since. It includes sections called “Your Future: Picture It” and—with unintentional irony—“Re-entry: Returning to Society.”

The problem with paying so much attention to insight during parole hearings, critics point out, is that too much emphasis falls on emotion and introspection and not enough on measurable criteria, like professional and therapeutic development, which have been the cornerstones of the California prison system’s correctional approach since 2005.

Davis is a textbook example of the rehabilitated prisoner. He’s had no disciplinary write-ups since 1980, and his in-prison vita reflects an exceptional work ethic. Over the past 50 years, Davis has held down a huge range of jobs—as an operator in a printing plant, a clerk, a building orderly, a porter, a culinary department runner, a teacher’s aide, and an instructor.

In addition to the Bethany doctorate, he’s graduated from drafting and steel-welding programs, and he’s taken academic courses through Pennsylvania State University, Ohio University’s Patton College of Education, and Berean School of the Bible. He’s made his way through Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, the Alternatives to Violence Project, and Yokefellows, a faith-based peer-counseling group. He’s undergone Gestalt therapy, guided imagery therapy, psychotherapy, rational emotive behavior therapy, transactional analysis, and stress management and relaxation training.

To get a sense of just how much programming this is, consider the closing remarks of Davis’s lawyer, Michael Beckman, during the 2010 parole hearing: “When my client asked what he could do to make himself more ready for parole, Commissioner [James] Davis [the previous presiding commissioner] did not—because he could not—give him an answer.”

Beckman, an L.A.-based attorney who’s been focused on parole law since 1985, represented Davis for 17 years, first under state appointment and then pro bono. During this time, he became more outspoken about the rationale for keeping Davis in prison, even comparing the parole board’s actions to vigilantism. Beckman has made the case again and again that the governor’s continued reversals convert a sentence of life with the possibility of parole into a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

“As held by the California Supreme Court in re Dannenberg, no prisoner can be held for a period grossly disproportionate to his individual culpability for the commitment offense,” Beckman pointed out at Davis’s 2017 hearing. “Such excessive confinement violates the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the California Constitution.”

In 2019, Beckman put it in plainer terms: “My client is a political prisoner at this point, plain and simple.”

The presiding commissioner that year, Arthur Anderson, came to a similar conclusion. In his decision to grant Davis parole, he reasoned, “The Supreme Court says after a long period of time, immutable factors such as this commitment offense, prior criminality, unstable social history may no longer indicate a current risk of danger in light of a lengthy period of positive rehabilitation.… Well, we must do the right thing and follow the law because if we don’t follow the law, why have a law?”

Commissioner Deborah San Juan, who presided over Davis’s parole hearing in January 2021, led with an effort to speak directly to the concerns raised in the governor’s veto. Her interview went point by point through Newsom’s objections, in search of concrete answers. She and deputy commissioner Neal Chambers found Davis suitable for release, citing as special considerations his age, his long-term confinement, his diminished physical condition, and, as San Juan told Davis, his ability to be “open and honest and understanding of what your actions caused.”

The sticky issue of notoriety still came up. Chambers voiced concern about potential post-parole challenges related to Davis’s fame and asked him explicitly about his plans to speak or write a book about his crime.

Davis’s answer? “When I speak from a pulpit to a religious group, obviously I want to tell them what Jesus did for me. The caveat is I will never talk about my case except to just admit it,” he said. “My message to them is the message of redemption by Christ through his grace. That’s the message.”

Yet Newsom reversed that BPH decision, too.

On July 8, 2022, Davis went before the board again. This latest hearing inserted a new twist into his story. The assigned commissioners, Julie Garland and Rachel Stern, denied his parole, after more than a decade of grants by their colleagues. Nothing had changed in Davis’s vita. Still, the commissioners saw in Davis’s story a minimization of personal responsibility and, as Garland put it, a lack of “change, growth and maturity.” They also perceived his ability to tell his own story as a threat, even in a religious context.

Commissioner Garland explained that she was concerned about Davis’s “willingness to speak to church groups or others about your, as you call it, redemption.”

“You are notorious,” she continued. “The potential impact of you speaking about yourself and your past and your involvement with the Manson family could not only affect the victim’s family, which it clearly would, but it could impact public safety and that others may be inspired to follow a similar path as you.… Our concern is this idea that you want to talk about redemption cannot be disconnected from your involvement with the Manson family.”

Davis’s next hearing is scheduled for January 18, 2024.

What recourse exists for Davis, and for other lifers who face regular parole denials or reversals?

We reached out to the BPH for comment; the press office provided us with the general guidelines outlined for the parole board commissioners from the California Code of Regulations, title 15, section 2281, but no additional solutions.

The legal experts we consulted had more to say. Heidi Rummel, a USC Gould School of Law clinical professor of law and a co-director of the Post-Conviction Justice Project, pointed out that the remedy can come from the courts. “There is a due process liberty interest in parole in California, which is unusual. Most states don’t have that,” she said. Re Lawrence found that if the governor or the board does not offer a sound legal basis for denying parole, that decision can be overturned by a court. Judicial review has played an important role in shifting the emphasis in parole board decisions to genuinely assessing risk and rehabilitation.

This solution did, in fact, work recently for another Manson family member, Leslie Van Houten. Like Davis, Van Houten was sentenced to seven years to life for murder. She went before the BPH successfully five times, only to have her parole grant reversed each time by California governors. Her lawyers challenged the vetoes before a California Court of Appeal, and in May 2023, the judge ruled in Van Houten’s favor. She was released in July.

Beckman would like to see the review standard tightened to something more concrete than “some” evidence, at the very least when it comes to the governor’s review. “An improvement would be requiring a preponderance of the evidence, with current datasets of clear and convincing evidence to overturn [the board’s decision],” he said.

California could also choose to get rid of the gubernatorial veto, which often incentivizes the politicization of crimes and parole. That’s just one of several suggestions Aviram lays out in Yesterday’s Monsters. There is room for other institutional changes as well.

A big step forward would be to diversify the BPH, which has traditionally been heavy on former law enforcement officers and former prosecutors. Aviram recommends adding people with backgrounds in social work and those with firsthand experience being incarcerated as a way to correct for the confirmation bias and tunnel vision that can come from a shared professional background.

“If parole is really designed to protect society, the preoccupation with the symbolic meaning of the crime of confinement, especially decades after the fact, is inappropriate,” Aviram writes in Yesterday’s Monsters. “The protection of public safety, as well as the wise and prudent expenditure of public funds, should lead the hearings to focus on whether inmates might commit future crimes, not on moral judgements about their virtues and flaws.”

Some of these changes have been proposed in a new piece of parole-reform legislation, California Senate Bill 81, introduced by Senators Nancy Skinner and Josh Becker on January 12, 2023. The bill would require the BPH to cite more objective criteria for denial, including a “preponderance of the evidence,” and it would put in place a more robust oversight process. (On October 8, shortly before we went to press, Newsom vetoed the bill.)

Until 2022, every time the BPH found Davis suitable for parole, he waited patiently to see what would happen to him. He once learned that Governor Jerry Brown had vetoed the decision when another prisoner at CMC saw the story on the TV news and offered their condolences. Davis has held off on undergoing hip replacement twice, awaiting the outcome of a pair of hearings. But he went ahead with the latest surgery after the latest veto. As he stepped gingerly around San Quentin post-replacement, his friends and Christian brothers prayed that the system would let Davis go next time.

The attention paid to him by those around him is never lost on Davis. He’s humbled by his status as a respected elder figure within the community. Whether in casual talks while limping around the yard or in one-on-one theological discussions or in the center of a group Bible study, Davis believes he’s serving his best purpose in the here and now.

Despite the successful hip replacements and the bout with COVID he survived—the ever-youthful glimmer in Davis’s eyes notwithstanding—I see an increased fragility in him. California Correctional Health Care Services can do only so much for so long. I’ve never discussed mortality with him directly, other than to ask, “How are you feeling? How’s it going?” To which he always replies, “Fine. Great,” before launching into talk of spiritual eternity.

The last time I spoke to Davis, shortly after his most recent BPH denial, he had begun focusing instead on a different kind of story, one written down and printed in a small pamphlet during his CMC days. He arrived at San Quentin with bulk copies of this “tract,” as he calls it—a testimonial he gave out freely until they were almost gone. He now hoped to get an updated and improved version printed. It seemed to be extremely important to him. Perhaps his health and age were spurring him to put his words down in print, to focus his narrative energies on his epitaph rather than on his interviews before the board.

While Davis worked on his document, the conversation on rehabilitation in California took a politically progressive turn. Last spring, Newsom visited San Quentin to announce a bold plan—a transformation of the prison into a new kind of facility focused on rehabilitation, education, and job preparation. According to the vaguely proposed design, a “center for innovation” might occupy the space currently used by death row and the Prison Industry Authority warehouse. With this center, Newsom said, “we take the next step in our pursuit of true rehabilitation, justice, and safer communities through this evidenced-backed investment, creating a new model for safety and justice—the California Model—that will lead the nation.”

For this model to work effectively, it will not only require the facade of transformation at California’s oldest prison. It will also require a concerted effort to change the hearts and minds of the public, who will have to give up their monsters to make room for a new vision of rehabilitation. It’s an invitation to cast aside cynicism and to dream of a legal system that lives up to its restorative potential. It might even be possible to imagine a new chapter to the narratives of lifers like Davis. It’s a pie in the sky for now, but maybe one day soon it will be a more fitting ending to this story of justice and incarceration. To be continued…•

Original Article


brownrice said...

Great article, Deb. Thanks.

“He’s like this little hillbilly gnome, but you cannot avoid being impacted by him,” Morales said.
Sounds familiar :-)

Jenn said...

Until his 2019 move to San Quentin, Davis was my “neighbor” as I live quite close to CMC San Luis Obispo. I drive by there nearly every day. I used to look over there and shake my head and think, “You’ve spent a lifetime locked up in there. I hope that is was worth it, you jerk.”

Tragical History Tour said...

I wonder what Davis makes of all the passages in the bible that call for him to have put to death already.

Leviticus 24:17
Exodus 21:12
Numbers 35:30-31
Revelation 21:8
Genesis 9:5-6
Exodus 21:23

All fictional nonsense of course, but if you're going to throw your Christian conversion around like it matters, you can't be selective about the user manual. He shouldn't even be requesting parole, because if he is who he says he is, he would surely be doing more good work in prison than out.

grimtraveller said...

Jenn said:

I used to look over there and shake my head and think, “You’ve spent a lifetime locked up in there. I hope that it was worth it, you jerk.”

I wonder how many criminals that have ended up in prison on a life sentence or on an extremely long sentence have genuinely thought to themselves after a while, especially if it was for rape or murder, "Yeah, this is worth it ! No women {or men}, sharing a cell in an overcrowded prison, with some psycho that I don't know and probably wouldn't be friends with on the outside, having to smell their shit 💩 {and my own !🤢} in my cell all day, putting up with their irritating habits with no relief, constantly looking over my shoulder when I do get my hour outside, eating substandard food {possibly years out of date}, having to watch daytime TV, not having the freedom to roam, go out and have a burger, a taco, a beer etc, when I want, and everything else, being told what to do every day of my life etc, etc."

I doubt it somehow.

But it's easy to conclude this because let's face it, most criminals do not think futuristically. In fact, most of us have our moments when we ditch futuristic thinking for the moment. It's part of our nature. And even if Bruce did gamble back in '69 and think it would be worth a spell in the clink or even a death sentence, like the rest of humanity, he had and has the right to change his mind !
In a way, the rest of society should be dancing in the streets that the likes of Bruce and Leslie and Susan and Pat changed their minds, changed their thinking and wanted to rejoin the society they became infamous for rejecting in the worst possible way. Because that means that the punishment they were given becomes effective. It really hurts. As it was meant to do. I've long felt that if they are granted parole, so be it. It's not a matter of "deserve." And I do recognize that California has played hypocritical games with its own laws down the years. But when all is said and done, in the grand scheme of things, they can't really complain too hard that they've spent most of their lives inside. They willy-nilly took lives. Lives that mattered. Lives that counted. Lives that hadn't reached the fullness of days yet.

grimtraveller said...

{and my own !🤢}

That should be their own !
My shit stinks just fine. 🤭

{If you've got anosmia !}.

grimtraveller said...

Tragical History Tour said:

I wonder what Davis makes of all the passages in the bible that call for him to have put to death already

He would recognize the mercy of God. Which is precisely what he does. And ironically, parole board members freak out at the reality of a reformed murderer telling people that…..he has reformed and recognizes the evil and horror of what he once did.

Leviticus 24:17..Exodus 21:12..Numbers 35:30-31..Revelation 21:8..Genesis 9:5-6..Exodus 21:23

Following on from that, I have to say, you demonstrate ignorance here. I don’t want to get into a silly flame war with you, so please take what I say as coming from someone that really likes your input to these pages, appreciates and enjoys what you have had to say down the years and will continue to do so.
When I say “ignorance”, I don’t say it as a cuss, an attempt to demean or a pejorative. I say it in its purest meaning.

The Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers references, you might notice, come from the first 4 books of the bible. So we’re talking about right at the beginning. The set of documents that we call the Bible are impossible to understand without placing what is said within it in the correct context. There is a thread that runs through the entire Bible when it comes to murder and that thread is that of the death sentence for the convicted murderer. That it comes up time and time again highlights just how precious human life is to God.

However, God is also a forgiving God and it is more important to him for the road to relationship with him to be restored than he mete out punishment that is eternal in nature. He doesn't want anyone to reach that point of no return. So alongside pronouncements of death sentences are many, many pronouncements of forgiveness and examples of people that were forgiven for the murders they committed. Moses committed murder. David committed murder. Solomon committed murder.
What is noticeable in the quote you give from Revelation is that the writer is describing the very end of time as we know/perceive it and the start of eternal life. The writer is simply describing who will be there with God and who won’t be. Among those who won’t be are those that have murdered but never sought God’s forgiveness and change of life. That does not apply to Bruce Davis.
The Bible is not a set of documents without context. It is not one linear thing. There are lots of items in there that are time-specific, or which are conditional or which apply to one specific person or one specific group of people.

All fictional nonsense of course

Well, you can’t have it both ways. If it’s just fictional nonsense, then what does it matter to you what Bruce Davis thinks ?
“All” fictional nonsense ? Which part exactly ? These are 66 different sets of documents. A statement like “All fictional nonsense” is actually illogical. The onus is always going to be on you 🫵🏿 to demonstrate exactly which parts are fictional nonsense and back it up.

grimtraveller said...

Tragical History Tour said:

if you're going to throw your Christian conversion around like it matters

Poor show.
Granted, it clearly doesn’t matter to you. But there are many people to whom it does matter. Many, many people without current hope. Many people that need to be encouraged in the life they are currently living. People that might just hear about this infamous murderer who has been in prison for over half a century that isn’t angry and bitter or in denial like Charlie Manson was. Who has managed to keep up his allegiance to Christ for 49 years and gone through the requisite changes needed in order to persevere with Christ. And though you sarcastically toss out that he “throws” around his Christian conversion, all that demonstrates is that you have absolutely no idea of what it is to be in Christ and why that’s important and furthermore, you really don’t want to know.

you can't be selective about the user manual

Au contraire mon ami, au contraire. It is imperative that one is selective about the user “manual” as you put it {which it isn't, by the way}. One absolutely has to be selective. And the wisdom/smarts that God grants those of us that are prepared to admit their ignorance enables us to know what to take on board and live today, what was for yesteryear, what is rhetoric, what is sarcasm, what is humour, what is poetry/artistic licence etc. A kid that made a commitment to Christ when he was 13 once came up to me in tears and when I asked him what was up, he said he didn’t want to cut off his hands. I said to him, “Why do you think you have to cut off your hands ?” and he said that “Jesus says in the bible that if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” He found he was still sinning and thought he had to cut his hands off and later, his eyes. Now, you can say that he was just an ignorant kid or even just a kid. No matter. He needed to learn how to be selective. No different for the rest of us.
To not be selective with what you come across in 66 different documents such as are contained in the bible is ignorance supreme.

grimtraveller said...

Tragical History Tour said:

He shouldn't even be requesting parole

Why not ? It is the law. He’s in jail because he once had a flagrant disregard for the law and acted accordingly and as a result, two people have been dead for a long time. And you want him to carry it on just because it suits your cockeyed sense of justice for him to remain there ? He didn’t fight for any law that entitles him to be considered for parole if he behaved himself. It is part of his sentence, same as it would be if he was on an LWOP.
No offence in saying that I think your sense of justice is cockeyed ~ I think that of anyone that thinks a felon who is eligible to apply for parole, who has made the important turnaround over the length of time Davis has, shouldn’t apply for it.

because if he is who he says he is, he would surely be doing more good work in prison than out

Except that you don’t give a shit really, about whether the work he does in jail is good or not at all ! You’ve already made that clear with what you think of him saying he is a Christian, when it forms a major part of who he is in jail.
Ironically though, I partly agree with you here. I think he has done some good work in jail and arguably is more valuable there than he would be on the outside.
It would be safer for him outside though, given that there was a bounty on his head to settle a debt not so long ago.
Like I said earlier, if Bruce eventually died in jail, he’s on a win-win anyway. He’s free wherever he is on earth and regardless of what happens to him. He has the expectation of something better when he sheds this mortal coil so he couldn’t really complain if he never got parole. That said, Guv’nors Brown and Newsome {I don’t count Arnie in that number because he nixed the very first “yes” to Brucie} have been lame in their reasoning for keeping him inside and the two board members that determined him unsuitable in his last hearing are honestly embarrassing and shameful. More so than the Guv’nors. I don’t care one way or the other if Bruce were deemed to be unsuitable and it could be genuinely shown why he was.
But none of them ever have shown why and have used reasoning that, like LVH, was demonstrably untrue.

Tragical History Tour said...

Mercy of who? A fictional character? Sorry, but no, the burden of proof is on you. Prove the existence of this 'God'. Go on, I'll wait.

As always, your novel length rants stink up a thread. Was TLDR beyond one line, but I know it was your usual diarrhoea. Because that's all you produce.

orwhut said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
orwhut said...

May God bless you, Grim.
Tragical, I'll pray for you.

grimtraveller said...

Tragical History Tour said...

As always, your novel length rants stink up a thread...I know it was your usual diarrhoea. Because that's all you produce

Funny you should say that. I had a touch of diarrhoea the other day. But believe me, it came out of the right end ! 😃

And yes, Bruce Davis, when seeing what has been written in the bible about the fate of murderers would recognize God's mercy. Because he would know the plethora of other things written there. Even if God were a fictional character, the same would still apply. He'd see exactly the same thing. Fictionally or otherwise.
You are welcome to regard it as a load of nonsense. You've been given the freedom to do that if you so desire.

Sorry, but no, the burden of proof is on you. Prove the existence of this 'God'. Go on, I'll wait

Don't be silly.
On the internet, spiritual and internal realities or falsehoods are no more provable than your ability to love another person or animal.
However, if you'd care to up sticks and move to north-west London and hang with me for a year or so......


grimtraveller said...

Tragical History Tour said:

the burden of proof is on you

If the burden of proof is on me, then that would mean that you'd have to accept my terms of proof. But of course, you think you're on a win-win because you won't accept my terms and how I come to see something, that to you would be intangible, as proof.

Prove the existence of this 'God'. Go on, I'll wait

Your waiting is not the issue. The issue is whether or not you are honest enough to examine what may be put forth as proof. And whether you have the courage to possibly change or modify your view once you've rigorously looked at whatever I may put forward as "proof." I fully accept that you may well be relatively objective, you will honestly examine and may still conclude that it’s all a load of crap.
Proof is a funny thing. How does one "prove" anything ? How could you prove to me that you love anyone or anything ? If I challenged you to prove something that is generally intangible, if I were genuine about wanting you to show me, then I'd have to, at the very least, take on board how you see "proof" and look at what you are saying in defence of that proof. I'd also need to recognize that I would have some heavy lifting to do in order to get close to your mindset. I might still disagree with you at the end of the process, but at least I would have put myself in the position where, whatever view I held prior to the challenge, I was suspending that view in order to try to arrive at a conclusion that was not simply one that was already decided with no intention of changing should the need arise.

grimtraveller said...


3 things happened back in ‘88/’89 that had world stage ramifications that I think God had a hand in, in God’s mysterious way.
Right at the end of 1988, this Romanian guy came to a meeting of the church I was with at the time and told us about what was happening in Romania. He described it from both a secular viewpoint and from the point of view of a person that was a Christian. And it was pretty harrowing to we Londoners in the comfort of our own situations. It was like we’d always been told what Russia was like by media propaganda back in the day. Yet here was someone who had managed to get out of the country telling us, up close and personal. He said something quite profound. His people didn’t want money, they didn’t want international pressure….what they needed was prayer. They needed Christians to keep on at God to help bring about change so that they could breathe
So we prayed. Over the course of that year, people prayed, some faithfully and regularly, some not quite so. But there was a body of prayer and roughly a year later, the Ceaușescu regime collapsed and they were able to break away from the influence and domination of the USSR. Right now, in the school I work in, almost half the 480 kids are Romanian.

Midway through 1989, a white South African guy called Ray McAuley came to a meeting at the church I was with at the time {there were 99 different nationalities there at the time and a huge percentage were Black} and told us something interesting. Whereas I didn’t really know anything about Romania other than a few of their football teams and a player called Dudu Georgescu from when I was a kid, I had a vested interest in South Africa. I’d been on anti-apartheid marches and the like and South Africa and Nelson Mandela were part of the staple of conversations among young Black people or people on the left back in the 70s and 80s. Much of my angst towards the Thatcher govt in the 80s stemmed from their lax view of South Africa and there was a lot of ire directed at businesses like Barclays Bank which we saw as helping to prop up the regime there. And my mates and I were pretty contemptuous of any musicians that went to play there or sports people that went to play there. I recall being at a gig in ‘84 at Crystal Palace in which the crowd gave Jimmy Cliff the hardest time because he played gigs in SA. I actually felt a bit sorry for him, but not so sorry that I didn’t think he deserved the pillorying he got.
Anyway….McAuley said to us that there were real problems in SA and things had reached an impasse between the govt and the various representatives of the people and things were dancing on a tinder box. So much so that the White apartheid govt had secretly come to the churches and said that they needed their help. They needed them to mediate, to pray, to help with solutions because the politics weren’t cutting it. He said that what was needed from us in the UK was not lobbying our MPs, protests, marches or cash {though these played a part} but support through prayer, or words to that effect.
Had I not been a Christian at the time, I wouldn’t have listened to McAuley, but rather like with the brother from Romania, people that were there made a pledge to pray and that’s what we did. In our own time, in our own ways, collectively, individually. We got on God’s ear about the situation there. And less than a year later, Nelson Mandela walked out of jail and the govt stated that it was dismantling apartheid and that there would soon be democratic elections in which all the people could vote.

grimtraveller said...


Around the same time in the spring or summer of ‘89, 3 Bible school students from Northern Ireland came to that same church to speak to the congregation. I don’t know how familiar you are with the situation between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK during the ‘70s and ‘80s, but living here at the time, I can tell you, it was Fractious with a capital F. One never knew if the place you were going to or were at was going to be blown up by IRA bombs. And it didn’t matter if you happened to be sympathetic to the Republican cause ~ bombs placed in a bin next to a popular shop aren’t discerning and don’t discriminate. I personally narrowly missed getting blown up in ‘81 on Oxford Street {the bomb disposal expert called in to diffuse the bomb wasn’t so fortunate}, I heard and felt the explosion in Canary Wharf in ‘95 {my parents lived just down the road on the Isle of Dogs at the time. It rocked their flat} even though I was 3 miles away. At the time, I didn’t even know it was a bomb.
Anyway, these 3 students told us they’d been praying and were confident that no matter how long it took, God would work in his weird way but a necessary ingredient was prayer and vigilance. And people prayed. For years. And by the mid-'90s, the IRA were saying that “the war was over” even though they had not achieved what they had set out to achieve and by ‘98, the Good Friday agreement was signed.
There are other examples I could give, but these ones stand out because they all initially came to my attention around the same time and I couldn’t see how they were going to change. Russia was impregnable and Romania was a tiny backwater, South Africa was rich because of apartheid and weren’t going to give that up in a hurry, let alone turn power over to the majority and the IRA had come too far down the line to turn back. Or so it seemed. Are these examples “proof” of God ? No, not conclusively.
I could tell you about the times my youngest son was fitting when he was a baby and his eyes flew up into his head and he made sounds like a dragon and I wanted to exercise trust in God so I didn’t get on the phone to the ambulance or hospital but I asked God to heal him. It happened 3 times but since the last time in ‘2005, it’s not happened again and he’s now a ridiculously fit 19. Even people in the church, who preached week after week about trusting God, told me off about that. “You should have taken him to hospital !” Yeah, maybe. But I didn’t and he’s still here. The same thing had happened with my older sister’s youngest baby and she took her to the hospital straightaway. I don’t see her as lacking faith because of that {she had become a Christian in the aftermath of my own conversion in the mid-80s}. Were my actions “proof” of God ? No, not conclusively.
I could tell you about the time I had a vision of my friend, whom I hadn’t seen for a while, and in the vision, I challenged her about an abortion she’d had. And then that very day, she happened to pop into my workplace and we went for a drive and she told me that she’d gotten pregnant and had an abortion. I didn’t even know she had been pregnant.
Or I could tell you about the person whom I’d seen in a dream leaving the church and that very morning, the pastor and I were talking and he told me that person had called him to say she was leaving the church. And she did. Never returned.

grimtraveller said...


No doubt many would say all of these things are explainable outside of “God” ~ and I wouldn’t fight them, even though I couldn’t explain them. Because strange things happen in our world. But things like this never happened to me before I was in Christ and they have happened too many times in the last 39 years for me to pretend that they are just ordinary run of the mill “strange happenings.” I’ve only touched the surface in what I’ve relayed because it reaches a point of diminishing returns after a while. Of course they don’t prove anything….but they do indicate that maybe God has a way of working, in Christ, that isn’t science, and relies on something other. Like trust {basically, faith} and the simple fact is that if you don’t choose to see it, you won’t. Yeah, I know, many people who claim to believe are frauds. I get that and I’ve come across my share over the years. And I can’t prove any of this, you don’t know me and have no way of knowing whether I’m just spinning yarns. And also, importantly, Christians get things wrong. Many things. I’ve gotten loads of things wrong over the years. But then, I’ve worked with kids for 40 years and I’ve gotten things wrong there too. I’ve been driving since ‘77 ~ but I get things wrong there too.

Bruce Davis has been in Christ for close to 50 years. That’s no small thing. He knows what he is. He knows he had to make changes. And he knows he couldn’t have done it without God. Maybe others have done. But with God it’s a whole different ball game.

grimtraveller said...

Tragical History Tour said:

the burden of proof is on you...Prove the existence of this 'God'. Go on, I'll wait

Well, you did open that door....👍🏿

grimtraveller said...

Tragical History Tour said:

your novel length rants

Hey, what are you complaining about ? They're free and you're not obligated to subscribe ! 🤷🏿‍♀️

grimtraveller said...

Parole hearings are not trials. They do not introduce new evidence. They do not relitigate crimes. They are not supposed to dwell on the nature of the crime or what gets referred to as “unchanging historical factors.” Rather, their purpose—set by re Lawrence and re Shaputis—is to assess how prepared a prisoner is to reenter society

Parole hearings for some inmates in a way are trials. They are trials of a different kind. The inmate is "on trial" to see whether or not they are ready to re-enter the society they've left and personally, I don't have a problem with that.
And while new evidence is supposedly not introduced, if an inmate says that they lied in their trial or elaborates on something that was unclear in the original trial, or that they didn't tell the whole truth, surely that is going to have a bearing one way or the other, on the result of their parole hearing.
The incarcerated ex-members of the Family were about taking on what they saw as straight society, back in the day. They've learned big-time that it's a hell of a battle and that they lost it, decisively.
But those inmates on Death Row that were part of the class of '72 presented California with a puzzle it hadn't had to deal with in the modern age. And notably, Bruce Davis wasn't one of them.