REINHARDT, Circuit Judge:
California state prisoner John H. Pirtle was given a parole date in 1990, but in 1994, the California Board of Prison Terms rescinded his parole. After that, the Board denied Pirtle parole three other times prior to a denial in 2002.
In 1980, Pirtle was convicted of second-degree murder for killing his wife. He was sentenced to a term of seventeen years to life in prison. Ten years later, after a hearing, the Board determined that Pirtle was "suitable for parole and would not pose an unreasonable risk of danger to society or a threat to public safety if released from prison." The Board found that Pirtle committed the crime "as a result of significant stress in his life," that he showed remorse, and that he accepted responsibility for his actions. It also found that Pirtle had a stable social history prior to his marriage to the victim, had no juvenile or adult convictions for violent offenses, had performed well in his prison job assignments, had matured since his crime, had received positive psychiatric reports, and had developed realistic plans for his parole. The Board set his release date for December 30, 1994.
In March 1994, however, the Board rescinded Pirtle's parole. It found that the previous panel had not given sufficient weight to the gravity of the original offense, the fact that he had been carrying a concealed weapon, or his history of alcohol abuse, crime, and domestic violence. The Board denied Pirtle's parole again in 1995, 1996, 1998, and 2002. Each time, the Board relied on the circumstances of Pirtle's crime, his history of criminal conduct, and his failure to attend a substance abuse program. The Board's 2002 denial of parole is the subject of this appeal.
At the 2002 hearing, the Board considered two descriptions of Pirtle's crime. The first was from the 1990 Board report
(name spelling and reading errors omitted).
Next, the Board read into the record Pirtle's own account of the crime that he gave in 1990. It was transcribed as follows:
In addition to the circumstances of the commitment offense, the Board considered Pirtle's prior criminal history. He had no juvenile arrest record,
The Board also discussed Pirtle's tumultuous marriage to the victim. Both Pirtle and the victim were alcoholics and they fought frequently. On at least six occasions, the police were called to break up drunken fights between the Pirtles.
Finally, the Board questioned Pirtle about his history of alcohol abuse. Pirtle was asked why he stopped attending Alcoholics Anonymous ("AA") meetings in prison. He told them that attendance at AA meetings was a condition of his original parole date, but when his date was revoked, he stopped attending because he does not believe in a higher power, which is an important aspect of AA. At a 1996 hearing, the Board asked him why he did not attend AA meetings and he replied, "if you don't believe in a higher power you cannot do the 12 steps, and I don't believe in a higher power." The 2002 panel was aware of Pirtle's reasons for not attending AA.
At the conclusion of the 2002 hearing, the Board found that Pirtle was "not suitable for parole and would pose an unreasonable risk of danger to society or a threat to public safety if released from prison." It found that his crime was committed in "an especially cruel and callous manner," and that it was "carried out in a dispassionate calculated manner." Additionally, the Board found that "[t]he motive for the crime was inexplicable or very trivial in relationship to the offense."
The Board also found that Pirtle had an "escalating pattern of criminal behavior" and that he had "failed to profit from society's previous attempts to correct his criminality." It noted his unstable social history, including his alcohol abuse and the allegations that he was abusive toward his wife. The Board found that he needed to upgrade vocationally, participate in therapy or a self-help group to learn how to manage anger and stress, and take part in a substance abuse program. The Board emphasized its particular concern that Pirtle had not "made a lifelong commitment to a substance abuse program."
On January 27, 2003, Pirtle filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Butte County Superior Court, asserting that the Board's denial of parole violated his constitutional right to due process because the decision was not supported by any evidence. The state court issued a Waltreus denial of his petition, which is a summary dismissal issued when a petitioner raises claims in a habeas corpus petition that were already decided on direct appeal. See In re Waltreus, 62 Cal.2d 218, 42 Cal.Rptr. 9, 397 P.2d 1001, 1005 (1965). The Waltreus denial was in error, because the question whether the Board denied
Pirtle then filed a habeas corpus petition in district court. A magistrate judge issued a report and recommended that the writ be granted because the Board's decision was not supported by any evidence. The district court adopted the magistrate judge's findings and recommendations in full, granted the writ, and ordered the Board to set a parole date for Pirtle within 30 days. The State timely appealed.
The parties dispute the proper scope of review in this case. The State contends that we must apply the deferential standard set forth in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA"). Under the relevant portion of AEDPA, federal courts may not grant a writ of habeas corpus on
28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).
Pirtle argues that AEDPA's deferential standard does not apply to his claim because it was not adjudicated on the merits by a state court. Under the "look through" doctrine, in order to determine whether the state courts ever reached the merits of a federal claim, we must "look through" unexplained state court decisions, such as summary denials, to the last reasoned state court decision. Ylst v. Nunnemaker, 501 U.S. 797, 802, 806, 111 S.Ct. 2590, 115 L.Ed.2d 706 (1991); see also Mendez v. Knowles, 556 F.3d 757, 767 (9th Cir.2009). Here, the only reasoned state court decision was a Waltreus denial, which has been held by the Supreme Court to be neither a procedural denial nor a denial on the merits. Ylst, 501 U.S. at 805-06, 111 S.Ct. 2590; see also Hill v. Roe, 321 F.3d 787, 789 (9th Cir.2003). Because the state courts did not reach the merits of Pirtle's federal claim, "there is no state court decision on this issue to which to accord [AEDPA] deference." Pirtle v. Morgan, 313 F.3d 1160, 1167 (9th Cir.2002). Where, as here, "it is clear that a state court has not reached the merits of a properly raised issue, we must review it de novo." Id.
"California's parole scheme gives rise to a cognizable liberty interest in release on parole." McQuillion v. Duncan, 306 F.3d 895, 902 (9th Cir.2002). That liberty interest encompasses the state-created requirement that a parole decision must be supported by "some evidence" of current dangerousness. Hayward v. Marshall, 603 F.3d 546, 562-63 (9th Cir.2010) (en banc); see also Pearson v. Muntz, 606 F.3d 606, 608-09 (9th Cir.2010).
Our "some evidence" analysis is shaped by the state regulatory, statutory, and constitutional law that governs parole suitability determinations in California. See Hayward, 603 F.3d at 561-62. California law requires the Board to grant an eligible inmate a parole date unless the Board determines that "consideration of the public safety requires a more lengthy period of incarceration for this individual." Cal.Penal Code § 3041(b). According to the California Supreme Court, "public safety" is the "overriding statutory concern"
To assist in determining who may pose an unreasonable risk of danger, the California parole regulations identify circumstances that "tend to indicate unsuitability for release." Cal.Code Regs., tit. 15, § 2402(c). These circumstances include the aggravated nature of the commitment offense, a previous record of violence, an unstable social history, sadistic sexual offenses, a history of severe mental problems related to the offense, and serious misconduct in jail. Id. The regulations also identify circumstances that "tend to show suitability" for parole, including the lack of a juvenile record, a stable social history, signs of remorse, significant stress as a motivation for the crime, lack of criminal history, realistic plans for the future, and good institutional behavior. Id. § 2402(d).
While the regulatory factors are designed to guide the Board's decision, the ultimate question of parole suitability remains whether the inmate poses a threat to public safety. "There must be `some evidence' of such a threat," Hayward, 603 F.3d at 562, and not merely evidence that supports one or more of the Board's subsidiary findings. In particular, the Board may not rely solely on the circumstances of a commitment offense, because "[t]he prisoner's aggravated offense does not establish current dangerousness `unless the record also establishes that something in the prisoner's pre — or post-incarceration history, or his or her current demeanor and mental state' supports the inference of dangerousness." Id. (quoting Lawrence, 82 Cal.Rptr.3d 169, 190 P.3d at 555). Accordingly, under California's parole system and the constitutional requirements of due process, we must determine whether the record contains "some evidence" that Pirtle poses a current threat to public safety.
Here, the Board's stated reasons for denying Pirtle parole can be divided into three categories: 1) findings about the circumstances of the commitment offense; 2) findings about Pirtle's background and history; and 3) findings about Pirtle's conduct while incarcerated. The most substantial of the Board's findings relate to Pirtle's crime. First, the Board found that the offense was carried out in an "especially cruel" manner and demonstrated "an exceptionally callous disregard for human suffering." All of the evidence in the record, however, actually supports the opposite conclusion. As the district court correctly determined, Pirtle did not torment or terrorize his wife on the night of the crime. Although he slapped her early in the evening, she continued to drink and dance at the bar, clearly not traumatized by the experience. Moreover, the record contains no evidence regarding particular suffering as a result of the gunshot wound. The Board identified no characteristic of the shooting that, on a comparative basis, made the action "especially cruel" or "exceptionally callous."
Next, the Board found that the offense was committed in a "dispassionate calculated manner." This finding appears to be based on the Board's speculation that, after Pirtle's confrontation with his wife
The Board also found that the motive for the crime was inexplicable or very trivial in relationship to the offense. Nothing in the record supports this characterization either. Pirtle shot his wife in a highly-charged, emotional moment. The day after the couple agreed to try to save their failing marriage, Pirtle watched his intoxicated wife dance with another man at a bar. When Pirtle tried to take her home, she refused and instead declared that she was going home with the other man. This public moment of rejection, betrayal, and infidelity created a motive that was hardly trivial or inexplicable. To hold otherwise would be to disregard the history of human nature. No motive is more frequently recorded in literature and in song than jealousy and betrayal.
The Board's next set of findings had to do with Pirtle's background. The Board found that Pirtle had demonstrated an "escalating pattern of criminal behavior" and "failed to profit from society's previous attempts to correct his criminality." The district court correctly found that Pirtle's handful of minor misdemeanors and one felony drunk driving offense can hardly be described as an "escalating pattern of criminal behavior." Similarly, no evidence supports the Board's finding that Pirtle failed to profit from society's previous attempts to rehabilitate him. First, although the Board stated that Pirtle
The Board next found that Pirtle had an unstable social history based principally on alcohol, and additionally on an "escalating pattern of domestic encounters" in his relationship with the victim. A tumultuous relationship with a wife who engaged in multiple extra-marital affairs does not support a finding of an unstable social history, much less does it provide "some evidence" that, thirty years later, Pirtle poses a danger to public safety. The transcript of the 2002 parole hearing makes clear, however, that the Board found Pirtle's history of alcoholism to be the most troubling aspect of the record before it and the principal basis of its conclusion regarding an unstable social history. Pirtle's episodic abuse of alcohol played a significant role in his prior convictions as well as in the commitment offense. Recognizing the relationship between Pirtle's prior alcohol abuse and his commitment offense, the Board has repeatedly advised Pirtle that he should attend AA meetings. Pirtle regularly attended such meetings for four years after he was given a parole date in 1990, because doing so was a condition of that original order, but he stopped when the parole date was revoked. Pirtle has explained to the Board that he is an atheist, and as such, he objects to AA's religious content and its emphasis on a higher power.
Notwithstanding his unwillingness to attend AA because of his religious beliefs, Pirtle has been consistently forthright with the Board about his alcohol abuse. He has repeatedly expressed his commitment to abstain from alcohol, both to the Board and to prison psychologists. Pirtle's psychological assessments report that he has a history of episodic alcohol abuse, and that it is now in remission. The assessments also state that Pirtle has a great deal of insight about his problem with alcohol and its role in his crimes, and they note that he is committed to sobriety.
Pirtle's attitude about alcohol was demonstrated most colorfully at one parole hearing in which he stated: "I mean I wouldn't stick my hand in a jar of rattlesnakes — drinking would be paramount to the same thing." Consistent with the self-awareness that he has demonstrated and that his psychologists have observed, Pirtle had not consumed any alcohol during the twenty-two years of incarceration that preceded his 2002 parole hearing. Because there is no evidence that Pirtle will be unable or unwilling to manage his alcohol problem effectively upon release, as he has already done for more than two decades, we agree with the district court that "the record does not support the panel's determination that petitioner's abuse of alcohol up to 1980 rendered him dangerous in 2002."
The Board's remaining two reasons for denying parole concern Pirtle's rehabilitation program. First, the Board found that Pirtle "failed to upgrade vocationally." It is true that he had not recently completed any vocational training programs at the time of the 2002 hearing, but as the district court noted, he "maintained steady employment while in the institution, building an employment record characterized as `exceptional.'" Additionally, the record demonstrates that Pirtle already possessed several job skills, including that of farm equipment operator, mechanic, and welder, and that he had an offer of employment upon release doing ranch work for sixty hours per week.
Finally, the Board found that Pirtle requires additional therapy or self-help in order to learn how to cope with anger and stress.
The record contains no evidence that contradicts this professional assessment, or that otherwise supports the Board's finding that Pirtle needs additional programming in order to learn how to cope with anger and stress.
In sum, there is no evidence in the record to support the Board's finding that Pirtle poses a current threat to public safety. The Board's stated reasons for the denial of parole either lacked evidentiary support, had no rational relationship to Pirtle's current dangerousness, or both. Accordingly, we affirm the district court's decision to grant the writ of habeas corpus.
Upon granting the writ, the district court ordered the Board to set a parole date for Pirtle within thirty days. The State argues that the district court's remedy was improper, and that the appropriate remedy would be to remand the case to the Board with instructions to hold another hearing. There is no merit to this argument. Federal courts have the latitude to resolve a habeas corpus petition "as law and justice require." 28 U.S.C. § 2243. Ordering the release of a prisoner is well within the range of remedies available to federal habeas courts. "Habeas lies to enforce the right of personal liberty; when that right is denied and a person confined, the federal court has the power to release him." Fay v. Noia, 372 U.S. 391, 430-31, 83 S.Ct. 822, 9 L.Ed.2d 837 (1963), overruled on other grounds by Wainwright v. Sykes, 433 U.S. 72, 97 S.Ct. 2497, 53 L.Ed.2d 594 (1977). Accordingly, we hold that the district court's remedy was proper.
For the foregoing reasons, we hold that the Board's decision to deny Pirtle parole was not supported by "some evidence" of current dangerousness and thus violated his right to due process. We further hold that the district court's remedy of ordering the Board to set a parole date within thirty days was proper. We therefore affirm the decision of the district court.
In other instances, however, it does not, such as in Othello's murder of Desdemona after being deceived into believing her unfaithful:
William Shakespeare, Othello act 5, sc. 2.
At oral argument, the State contended that Pirtle could have attended self-help programs or engaged in self-study. The record shows that he did attend two self-help programs — Breaking Barriers and Alternatives to Violence. Moreover, the record contains no evidence that self-study was available to Pirtle as a treatment for substance abuse, or that self-study was suggested by any of the psychologists who regularly assessed Pirtle and recommended that he attend secular AA programs upon release. We can only speculate about the nature of the self-study program to which the State referred at oral argument, and speculation does not, of course, constitute evidence. What does constitute evidence is Pirtle's abstention from alcohol throughout the twenty-two years prior to his parole hearing, as well as his impeccable disciplinary record in prison, both of which are highly probative of his attitude towards alcohol and his capacity for self-discipline.