Parole Actions By Gonzales, Commission Are Faulted

By Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 6, 2009

A convicted murderer whose parole was rescinded should be released because then-Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and the U.S. Parole Commission engaged in a string of improper and unlawful actions to keep him behind bars, a federal magistrate has determined.

In a harshly worded opinion on Thursday, U.S. Magistrate Susan S. Cole of Atlanta wrote that the parole commission showed bias in its dealings with Veronza Bowers Jr., a former Black Panther serving a life sentence in connection with the 1973 slaying of a federal park ranger near San Francisco. Gonzales intervened to keep Bowers in prison after a memo from then-Commissioner Deborah Spagnoli, a former White House aide. Cole concluded that the attorney general "had no statutory or regulatory authority" to seek a review of the matter.

"The impartiality of the Commission as a whole was affected by the actions of Commissioner Spagnoli, the Attorney General and others," Cole wrote.

"The taint on the Commission's decision-making could not be eradicated simply by an order from this Court directing the Commission to grant [Bowers] a new parole hearing." As a result, she wrote, the decision to keep Bowers imprisoned "cannot stand."

A federal judge will review Cole's recommendation. A commission spokesman declined to comment. Bowers's attorney, Charles D. Weisselberg, said his client, who has always maintained his innocence, was confident that a court looking closely at his case would rule in his favor. "It was wonderful to hear the excitement in his voice," Weisselberg said.

Irregularities in the Bowers case were the subject of an investigation published last week in The Washington Post. It recounted how the commission granted Bowers parole in 2005 but did not release him after a behind-the-scenes campaign by Spagnoli, who later resigned.

Without the knowledge of other commissioners, The Post reported, Spagnoli wrote a 14-page memo about Bowers to Gonzales's office and had a number of exchanges with senior Justice Department officials. Eight days after the memo, Gonzales took the apparently unprecedented step of asking the commission to "clarify" its "initial decision." The commission then reversed itself.

Spagnoli did not respond to a message left at her home. She told The Post last month that she did nothing improper.

"The decision-making process . . . was rife with impermissible considerations," Cole wrote. She called Spagnoli's memo "a polemic against the decision to parole" that omitted all information favorable to Bowers.

Cole noted that the commission was up for reauthorization at the time and that Gonzales had the power to recommend it be closed.

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