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After a San Diego judge denied convicted murderer Orlando Roberts’ habeas corpus petition seeking review of his parole denial, he turned to Los Angeles’ Second District Court of Appeal. The L.A. justices agreed with the trial judge in December, but then took pains to argue that Roberts, who was imprisoned in San Diego County at the time he filed his petition, should have appealed to the San Diego-based Fourth District. “The proper venue for habeas corpus review of parole suitability denials lies in the county in which the inmate is housed (or was housed at the time of the parole denial) and in the corresponding appellate district,” Justice Norman Epstein wrote for the court. That holding by the court’s Division Four directly contradicts its colleagues in Division Six, which ruled in 2001 that an inmate’s appeal of parole denial by the state’s Board of Prison Terms should be heard in the county in which the decision was made. While it all sounds like a spitting match within a single court, the split has caused chaos across the state. Courts are transferring habeas corpus petitions to other counties’ courts, depending on which appellate ruling they follow, only to watch the cases get transferred back by courts that disagree. “A usual habeas petition can be decided within three or four months,” said Keith Wattley, a staff attorney who handles lifer parole cases at San Quentin’s Prison Law Office. “And some of these [cases] have been going for a year.” It’s creating a huge traffic jam. “Being that there are over 25,000 lifers in the state — and each year there are probably about 4,000 parole denials — you could imagine how quickly these would pile up,” Wattley says, adding that the costs soar as one county after another bounces the petitions back and forth. So, Wattley and others involved in handling the petitions were pleased when the California Supreme Court agreed earlier this month to use the Roberts case to decide proper jurisdiction for life-sentence prisoners seeking review of their parole denials. Roberts was sentenced to seven years to life for the 1976 shooting murder of an L.A. County man. Most everyone agrees that until December 2001, it was widely accepted that lifers filing habeas petitions did so in the courts of the county in which they were imprisoned. But then Justice Kenneth Yegan and two comrades in the Second District’s Division Six issued In re Sena, 94 Cal.App.4th 836, which turned things upside down by requiring filings in the county in which the judgment was rendered. The ruling ended what the court characterized as a “tennis match” in which L.A. County had transferred convicted murderer Ruben Sena’s habeas corpus petition to San Luis Obispo County, where he was imprisoned. That county transferred the matter back, only to see L.A. County ship it north again. Yegan sided with San Luis Obispo. “A petition for a writ of habeas corpus attacking parole denial is a challenge to the length of sentence, i.e., the sentence itself,” Yegan wrote. “It should be heard in the court which ‘rendered judgment.’” Wattley, of the Prison Law Office, said that means where the Board of Prison Terms denied parole. “But the board sits everywhere,” he said, “rotating between the state’s 33 prisons.” The impact in some counties was immediate. David Wesley, the assistant supervising judge for the criminal division in L.A. County Superior Court, said his court — which already had about 60 habeas petitions �– was suddenly inundated with about 40 more from outlying counties housing criminals convicted in L.A. County. “It’s a tremendous burden,” Wesley said. “We are a very, very busy court. We have more people in state prisons than any other county because we are the biggest. “We’ve had to grant extensions,” he added. “We’re not going to get into an argument with these other counties, but we were following what we thought the law was.” When the Second District’s Division Four issued its Dec. 6 ruling in In re Roberts, 02 C.D.O.S. 11839 — upholding the prior standard of forcing filings in the counties of imprisonment — matters got even more confusing. “L.A. and other counties that have large numbers of these [petitions] started sending them to the counties where the prisoners were imprisoned,” said Wattley. “And those counties are sending them back, so that makes for a mess. “We can’t properly advise prisoners where to file,” he added, noting that the Prison Law Office itself has about five cases in limbo because of the dispute. The state attorney general’s office would like to see a resolution too. “It’s just we want to see some consistency,” said Julie Garland, the supervising deputy AG in San Diego who is involved in Roberts’ case and supervises habeas cases in the AG’s Second and Fourth district offices. “I don’t think it’s fair to anyone to see these cases going back and forth between the counties. It’s just delay.” San Francisco Supervising Deputy AG Susan Lee, who was involved in both Roberts and Sena, sees other problems. Counties where large numbers of life-sentence prisoners were held — such as Marin with San Quentin prison, Monterey with Soledad and Sacramento with Folsom — had developed expertise in handling habeas petitions, she said, whereas counties such as San Francisco, with no prison, haven’t. “This is a new area for counties that aren’t used to doing it,” Lee said, “so what had been routine is not routine anymore.” She said the less-experienced counties tend to make the cases “more labor intensive” and show more skepticism about the Board of Prison Terms’ reasons for denying parole. “Some counties, for example,” Lee said, “presume that the board is operating under some policy not to grant parole” — a charge that has been leveled frequently against Gov. Gray Davis. While counties with more expertise don’t always refuse parole in habeas petitions, she said, they “are more used to them, more used to reading transcripts, and they’ve heard the claim a hundred times before.” Lee tried to raise the issue in another habeas case now pending before the Supreme Court, but the justices, in granting review in In re Dannenberg, S111029, on Jan. 15, limited the issues to those that didn’t include the jurisdictional dispute. It should be noted also that Roberts, who’s now imprisoned at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison near Blythe in Riverside County, won review of the parole jurisdiction issue while acting as his own lawyer. So did Sena in the case decided in reverse one year earlier. Before Roberts’ case goes further, however, the court will appoint counsel to argue the issue. Those caught in the middle profess not to care which way the court rules. They just want a clear direction. “If they tell me I have to do the work, I’ll do the work,” said L.A. Judge Wesley. “I just want them to clarify this once and for all.”

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