WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — Dennis Stanworth is a member of the notorious class of ‘72.
More than 100 death row inmates were spared the gas chamber in 1972 after the California Supreme Court ruled capital punishment unconstitutional.
His classmates all got life sentences, including the likes of serial killer Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan, Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin. But not all served their full sentences and some who were released went on to commit new crimes.
Last week, Stanworth — who killed two Pinole girls in 1966, and raped four other women in the Bay Area — became the third person paroled from death row to be accused of killing again as a free man. All three of those cases involved Bay Area slayings.
Police say Stanworth called them Wednesday and admitted to killing his 90-year-old mother in his Vallejo home about two months earlier. Her body was found outside the house, a prosecutor said.
Now 70 and appearing frail, Stanworth came to a hearing Friday in Solano County Superior Court in a wheelchair and exclaimed: “It’s the third time,” and “I plead guilty to everything.”
No formal plea, however, was entered as his defense attorney requested a week delay.
Victim advocates are fuming that Stanworth was paroled in 1990 despite having a horrific rap sheet. The killer himself pleaded for death.
Stanworth would never have been paroled today, according to Stanford University law professor Robert Weisberg, who tracks criminal justice trends and who called this case an “anomaly.”
Almost 40 percent of the 107 death row inmates in the class of ‘72 had been released on parole, according to a 2003 Contra Costa Times article analyzing Department of Corrections data. About a third of those released committed new crimes. That rate was far lower than the 65percent, three-year recidivism rate for all parolees released from prison during 2006-07, the most current figures from the Department of Corrections.
In the class of ‘72, as of 2003, 42 people have been paroled and 24 died in prison. Of the 42 released, 12 had been charged with or convicted of new crimes.
The Times’ 2003 analysis also looked at the class of ‘76, consisting of 67 people on death row who got life sentences after the state’s second capital punishment law was again ruled unconstitutional in 1976. Six of those formerly condemned inmates were paroled, with only one, a Contra Costa man, reoffending.
Stanworth confessed in 1966 to murdering two Pinole teens on Aug. 1, 1966, and raping one of the girls after he shot them both in the head. He also confessed to the savage kidnapping and rapes of four other women in Berkeley, Richmond, El Sobrante and Pacifica during a 10-month span. He pleaded guilty, and during his sentencing phase he begged the judge to send him to the gas chamber.
Despite objecting to an appeal and again pleading to be put to death, his case was automatically reviewed in 1969 and the state Supreme Court found jurors were improperly dismissed and reversed the decision. He was sentenced again to death in 1974 after a new trial, but the sentence was automatically commuted to life in prison because of the 1972 Supreme Court decision that banned the death penalty.
In 1979, Stanworth was deemed fit for parole after attending therapy and conducting himself well in prison. He was eventually released in 1990.
Life without a possibility of parole became a sentencing option in 1978.
Stanford’s Weisberg said the criminal justice system worked differently during that era.
“It was the last gasp in the ’70s in the kind of loose, rehab-oriented” courts and criminal justice system, said the co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.
“The real question is why he got paroled in 1990. What in the world was brought before them … to let a 48-year-old man with that criminal record go free?” Weisberg said.
“And yet it’s hard to say it’s a failure of the parole system if you don’t commit another crime for 22 years,” he said.
Governors also hold the power to deny any prisoner parole. Former Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican who held the office from 1991 to 1999, allowed many of the board’s decisions to stand, while Democrat Gray Davis, who served from 1999 to 2003, overturned almost 300 of the board’s decisions.
Weisberg could not imagine someone with Stanworth’s criminal record being released.
“The rape-murder and other rapes, under any regime, would not be very sympathetic,” Weisberg said.
In another case tied to a class of ‘72 parolee, jogger Armida Wiltsey’s body was found Nov.14, 1978, in brush near the Lafayette Reservoir trail. She had been strangled and had evidence of binding on her wrists.
Her slaying was unsolved for decades, but DNA found under Wiltsey’s fingernail matched hair from Darryl Kemp, who was serving a life sentence in Texas for three rapes.
Kemp had been on death row for two rapes and the rape and murder of a Los Angeles nurse in the 1950s. After the 1972 court decision, his sentence was commuted to life, and he was paroled in 1978. He killed Wiltsey four months after his release.
Kemp was convicted and again sentenced to death in 2009; he awaits execution in San Quentin State Prison.
Robert Lee Massie, a former death row inmate from San Francisco, also killed only months after his parole release in 1978. He was again condemned and executed in 2001.
It is unusual for longtime prisoners who are paroled at older ages to kill again, Weisberg said.
“Paroling a murderer who has served a long sentence is empirically a pretty safe proposition,” he said. “The recidivism rate for lifers on parole is pretty low.”
However, inmates with sex crime backgrounds do not fall into that category, the law professor said.
Any recidivism rate at all troubles many victim rights advocates.
Beverly McGann’s son Richard was stabbed 53 times and killed in 1984 by a parolee two days after his release. She has been a co-president of the East Bay-Contra Costa County chapter of Parents of Murdered Children since 1995.
The San Pablo woman remembered Stanworth’s case in 1966, after the bodies of Pinole teens Susan Muriel Box and Caree Lee Collison were found in a bush overlooking San Pablo Bay. When she read last week investigators believe Stanworth killed again, she could not believe he was a free man.
“This man should never have been paroled — ever,” McGann said. “Not because he said he wanted to get the death penalty, but because he deserved the death penalty. He was evil.”
Ricky Lee Egberto, 29, the killer of McGann’s son, is serving two life sentences without the possibility of parole, and the mother cannot imagine him being free.
“Our victims are gone forever,” she said. “They don’t get a reprieve.”