After nearly 24 years in prison, longtime Post-Conviction Justice Project client Sandra Davis-Lawrence finally returned to society because of a decision by the California Supreme Court that would have lasting effects on the California parole system.

USC Law students, under the supervision of clinical faculty, took Davis-Lawrence’s case to the California Supreme Court in 2008.  Their argument: a life-term prisoner is entitled to be granted parole once the prisoner no longer poses a danger to the community.

Lawrence’s case set precedent that has helped free many California life inmates.

Davis-Lawrence’s grant of parole from the Board of Parole Hearings was reversed by then-Governor Schwarzenegger largely on the basis of the circumstances of Sandra Davis-Lawrence’s 1971 commitment offense, a first-degree murder. The California Supreme Court held that Schwarzenegger’s decision violated Davis-Lawrence’s due process rights by relying so extensively on the unchangeable circumstances of her original crime.

According to Schwarzenegger, Davis-Lawrence’s crime demonstrated “an exceptionally callous disregard for human suffering…This was a cold, premeditated murder carried out in an especially cruel manner and committed for an incredibly petty reason.”

The 4-to-3 ruling by the California Supreme Court overturning Schwarzenegger’s decision has allowed for meaningful judicial review of parole decisions by the Board of Parole Hearings and the Governor and, since 2008, has been the basis of hundreds of constitutional challenges by parole-eligible inmates. The Lawrence decision was the first time that the state’s highest court ruled in favor of a prisoner in a parole case.

Students in the Post-Conviction Justice Project, under the direction of professors Michael Brennan, Carrie Hempel and Heidi Rummel, had represented Davis-Lawrence at parole hearings and in the state courts since 2000.

USC Law student Lisa Shinar ’07 wrote the petition challenging the Governor’s reversal of Davis-Lawrence’s fourth grant of parole, and Christopher Mock ’08 argued the case in the California Court of Appeal. The Court granted the petition and ordered Davis-Lawrence’s release on parole. The California Supreme Court took the case under review, and Patrick Hagan ’09 and Erin McLendon ’09 took the lead in briefing the case for the Supreme Court.

On August 21, 2008, the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of Davis-Lawrence, allowing her to remain free after nearly 24 years in prison.

“This case is significant on so many levels – for Sandra, who has paid for her crime and earned her freedom through exemplary efforts to educate and reinvent herself in prison, for so many clients of the clinic and other life-term prisoners who now see that their hard work toward rehabilitation in prison can lead to their freedom, and for all the students of the clinic who work so hard for their clients in every other case,” said Rummel, who worked on the original petition as a visiting professor.

In the ruling, the justices said there was “overwhelming” evidence of Davis-Lawrence’s rehabilitation while in prison, demonstrating her suitability for parole.

She earned two degrees in prison, including her MBA; mastered numerous marketable skills; served as a leader in many prison programs, including president of the inmates’ Toastmasters Club; acted as a mentor for other women at the prison through a variety of programs; co-founded a tutoring program; and remained discipline-free.

Davis-Lawrence also repeatedly expressed her extreme remorse for her crime and had tremendous support from the community for her release.