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IONE — On a hot, cloudless day, Nathan Ellis sat in a stuffy room fighting for his freedom. But the 53-year-old inmate just can’t escape his past. On Wednesday, Ellis was denied parole for the 14th time in 28 years, despite the first-time assistance of a crack pro bono legal team, the personal appearance of the San Francisco judge who sentenced him and his own tearful pleas for freedom. “I’m not the same person I was at 18 years old. I’ll never be that person again,” sobbed the big man. “I want to be with my wife,” he said. “I’d like to grow old with her. I love her, and I know what this is doing to her.” Ellis, a convicted kidnapper and robber, is one of more than 25,000 California inmates still behind bars under the state’s long-gone indeterminate sentencing laws, where terms can stretch to life for certain crimes. Lifers, as they are called, are at the mercy of the state’s Board of Prison Terms, which routinely denies parole based on standard language that the inmates remain an “unreasonable risk of danger to society” and that their crimes were committed in an “especially cruel and callous manner.” Ellis, an inmate at Mule Creek State Prison, heard those very words Wednesday. His case stands out because Ollie Marie-Victoire, the San Francisco Superior Court judge who sentenced him, has campaigned to free him for 20 years. Victoire, who sentenced Ellis to seven years to life, has said she expected him to serve only eight years. She is appalled that he’s still behind bars. The 80-year-old retired judge, who was denied the right to speak on Ellis’ behalf on Wednesday, showed up anyway and gasped slightly when his parole was rejected again. She later said she was “disappointed.” Ellis’ wife of 12 years, Saundra, said she was not allowed to attend the hearing. Ellis was convicted of two crimes committed in San Francisco in October 1977. He took $20 from two women in their home. Two days later, he grabbed a woman on a street and demanded money. As he did, he was confronted by three men and ended up hitting one and stabbing another in the arm. Ellis, who represented himself in court, won a mistrial in the first set of proceedings but was convicted on retrial. Marie-Victoire’s sentence took into account that Ellis had a lengthy history of robbing and raping women and had a record including some prison time dating back to 1963, when he was 12. During Wednesday’s hearing, Ellis, whose hands were shackled, apologized to his victims, who were not at the hearing. He also said that many of the adult males in his youth were criminals who provided “bad examples.” “I found out if I did things that were against the rules of society, they’d pat me on the back,” he said. “And I needed a pat on the back at that time.” Ellis held himself stoically throughout most of the proceedings, even as he recounted being sexually molested by an uncle for years. He said he believes his assaults on women were his misguided way of asserting his masculinity — “by raping them, by dominating them, by having power over them.” Ellis’ history of violence toward women seemed to play a defining role in the board’s denial. BPT Chairwoman Margarita Perez and Deputy Commissioner Pam Ziegler — the sole panel members hearing Ellis’ case — dwelled on it during the 3�-hour hearing Wednesday. They also listed in-prison violations, such as smoking pot and one instance of “improper sexual contact,” that occurred early in Ellis’ confinement. The two women lauded Ellis for earning vocational credits, participating in a 12-step program and remaining relatively discipline-free for the last nine years. They also acknowledged that Ellis had two job prospects lined up, and read letters from guards and vocational supervisors proclaiming Ellis more than ready to re-enter society. There was even a report by a psychiatrist that Ellis was less of a danger to the community than “the average person.” Even so, Perez concluded that the negative aspects of Ellis’ behavior outweighed the positive. “You cannot be counted on to avoid criminality,” she said. Perez and Ziegler apparently recounted every violation that ever made it onto Ellis’ record — and even some alleged offenses — to deny parole. Despite no indication that Ellis has violated prison drug policies since 1996, they recounted earlier uses of marijuana and homemade alcohol, going so far as to note a pot violation from 1970. They also reprimanded him for being caught rolling cigarettes and sharply chastised him for having been found with self-adhesive letter labels — a violation of prison policy that Ellis said had been changed without his knowledge — as recently as November. “The record seems to indicate that up until recently, you’re not following the rules of the institution,” Perez chided. Ellis’ lawyer, N. Kathleen Strickland, a partner in Holland & Knight’s San Francisco office, hammered on Ellis’ generally clean recent prison record and that most of the alleged violations of policy are more than a decade old. She asked the board to stop fixating on his pre-conviction crimes that are nearly three decades old. “At some point, the crimes in the past are so long ago they lose their relevancy. They have to fade into the background,” she said. “I think it’s time for [Ellis] to be paroled,” she said, “if parole and improving yourself in prison is to mean anything.” Ellis, choking up a bit, thanked Marie-Victoire for showing faith in him, and the board for even considering parole. “While I’m not yet trustworthy,” he said, “I one day hope to be.” Ellis will be eligible for another parole hearing in one year. Zachary Potter, another Holland & Knight partner working on Ellis’ behalf, noted that he might appeal Wednesday’s decision directly to the San Francisco Superior Court.

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