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In re Dannenberg

Supreme Court of California

January 24, 2005, Filed



BAXTER, J.—In this case involving a second degree murderer, we consider how the Board of Prison Terms (Board or BPT) may determine that a prisoner with an “indeterminate” life sentence, having served the minimum period of confinement required by statute, is nonetheless presently unsuitable for the setting of a fixed parole release date because [****2]  the gravity of the inmate's  [***420]  offense indicates a continuing danger to public safety. The issue is whether the Board may refuse a parole date on this ground only after evaluating the offender's crime against others of similar gravity and against its own uniform-term “matrices,” and concluding that the offense is particularly egregious by those comparative standards, or whether it need conduct such a comparative analysis only after it determines that the inmate is suitable for parole.

John E. Dannenberg is serving a sentence of 15 years to life for the second degree murder of his wife, committed in 1985. He beat her with a pipe wrench during a domestic argument. Thereafter, she drowned in the bathtub. Exactly how this happened is unclear. However, despite Dannenberg's insistent denials, the circumstances permit an inference that, while she was helpless from the beating, Dannenberg placed or forced her head underwater, or at least allowed it to remain there, until she died.

 [*1070]  In 1999, as on several prior occasions, the Board declined to grant Dannenberg a parole release date. The Board concluded that Dannenberg's crime indicated a continuing public danger, thus making him presently unsuitable [****3]  for parole, because the murder was “especially callous and cruel” and was committed for a trivial reason. Following its long-standing formal policy, the Board made its unsuitability determination by confining its examination to the particular circumstances of Dannenberg's crime, without measuring his offense against other homicides, or against the Board's own uniform-term norms for second degree murderers.

The Court of Appeal held that the Board proceeded incorrectly. Construing the pertinent statute, Penal Code section 3041, 1 the  [**786]  court ruled that once an indeterminate life prisoner reaches minimum parole eligibility, the Board must set a fixed date for parole release, pursuant to the principle of “uniform terms” for crimes of similar gravity, and with due regard for the statutory minimum term for the inmate's offense, unless it finds the prisoner's crime “particularly egregious” in comparison to other offenses of the same class. Accordingly, the court remanded the case for a new parole hearing under proper standards.

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34 Cal. 4th 1061 *; 104 P.3d 783 **; 23 Cal. Rptr. 3d 417 ***; 2005 Cal. LEXIS 570 ****; 2005 Cal. Daily Op. Service 660; 2005 Daily Journal DAR 859

In re JOHN E. DANNENBERG on Habeas Corpus.

Subsequent History: Time for Granting or Denying Rehearing Extended Dannenberg (John E.) on H.C., 2005 Cal. LEXIS 2253 (Cal., Feb. 9, 2005)

Rehearing denied by Dannenberg (John E.) on H.C., 2005 Cal. LEXIS 2062 (Cal., Feb. 23, 2005)

US Supreme Court certiorari denied by Dannenberg v. Brown, 546 U.S. 844, 126 S. Ct. 92, 163 L. Ed. 2d 109, 2005 U.S. LEXIS 6367 (2005)

Writ of habeas corpus denied Dannenberg (John E.) on H.C., 2006 Cal. LEXIS 14748 (Cal., Dec. 13, 2006)

Writ of habeas corpus granted In re Dannenberg, 156 Cal. App. 4th 1387, 68 Cal. Rptr. 3d 188, 2007 Cal. App. LEXIS 1865 (Cal. App. 6th Dist., 2007)

Writ of habeas corpus denied Dannenberg v. Ornoski, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 74524 (N.D. Cal., Apr. 14, 2008)

Writ of habeas corpus denied Dannenberg (John E.) on H.C., 2009 Cal. LEXIS 1204 (Cal., Jan. 28, 2009)

Prior History:  [****1]  Court of Appeal, First District, Division Three, A095299. Superior Court of Marin County, No. SC112688A, Verna Alana Adams, Judge.

In re Dannenberg, 102 Cal. App. 4th 95, 125 Cal. Rptr. 2d 458, 2002 Cal. App. LEXIS 4660 (Cal. App. 1st Dist., 2002)

Disposition: Judgment of the Court of Appeal reversed.


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Criminal Law & Procedure, Postconviction Proceedings, Imprisonment, Parole, Civil Rights Law, Protection of Rights, Prisoner Rights, Safety, Sentencing, Proportionality, Credits, Ranges, Supervised Release, Business & Corporate Law, Authority to Act, Actual Authority, General Overview, Capital Punishment, Murder, First-Degree Murder, Penalties, Second-Degree Murder, Governments, Legislation, Interpretation, Administrative Law, Judicial Review, Standards of Review, Implied Authority, Constitutional Law, Bill of Rights, Fundamental Rights, Cruel & Unusual Punishment, Harmless & Invited Error