An attorney representing convicted killer Nathan Ramazzini believes the state shouldn’t keep her client locked up forever – just because of his crime.
Colusa County Chief Deputy District Attorney Brendan Farrell believes otherwise, because the District Attorney’s Office secured not one, but two sentences of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) against a man determined by the court to be irreparably corrupt and beyond redemption.
Ramazzini, 40, was convicted in 1998 of plotting and then carrying out the brutal slaying of his childhood best friend, Eric Ingebretsen, when both boys were just 16 years old.
Farrell filed a Writ of Prohibition in Superior Court of California, in 2019, after the State Legislature adopted Senate Bill 394, granting parole hearings to LWOP inmates who were convicted before the age of 18.
On Friday, Farrell argued his case via Zoom before California Superior Court Judge James Argueiles, hoping to block Ramazinni’s parole hearing in July on the grounds the Legislature violated the California Constitution when it passed the law that could potentially let Ramazinni out of prison.
Standing between Farrell’s arguments over whether Ramazanni should be given parole hearings was California Assistant Deputy Attorney General, Nelson Richards, who has been tasked with defending California’s SB 394, and attorney, Heidi Rummel, co-director of the Post-Conviction Justice Project, who represents Ramazzini and other LWOP offenders who committed their crimes when they were juveniles.
Ramazzini, who was resentenced last year by Colusa County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey A. Thompson to life without the possibility of parole, has been in prison for 22 years and could, under the law, receive multiple parole hearings during his incarceration.
Farrell argued that the California Legislature violated the law when it amended Proposition 115, a voter initiative, without the requisite two-thirds majority in both houses, making SB 394 unlawful and void.
Richards and Rummel argued that SB 394 was designed to address juvenile LWOP prisoners whose constitutional violations became apparent after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for juveniles, regardless of the crime they committed, would be a cruel and inhumane punishment under the Eighth Amendment.
“SB 394 wasn’t just intended to solve a constitutional problem, it did solve a constitutional problem,” Richards said. “There is no question that Ramaninni’s sentence, or that anyone in Ramazinni’s situation who has this type of sentence, that their sentence is unconstitutional.”
Judge Argueiles disagreed with Richards and Rummel and agreed with Farrell in this matter.
“I don’t think it’s indisputable that it’s unconstitutional,” Arguelies said, regarding LWOP sentences for juveniles. “It would be if the Supreme Court had said juveniles can never get LWOP under any circumstances, period. Then I’m good. But there is still a way. I know it’s hard to predict and I know it’s rare, but a judge could still sentence Ramazinni to LWOP.”
Arguelies said the way the Legislature chose to fix the constitutional issues of life sentences without parole for juveniles was to say “no more LWOPs” ever.
“Everybody gets a hearing,” he said. “That was their fix. The problem with that is that it flies in the face of the proposition, which said judges have discretion.”
Arguelies said there is a way for the Legislature to make the changes SB 394 sought to make, but that it would require two-thirds approval by both houses.
“I’m not saying that they didn’t fix the problem, but it’s not a fix because the fix was not enacted properly,” he added.
Rummel argued there is a difference between a sentence of imprisonment until an inmate’s natural death and a parole proceeding.
“It’s not that the Legislature said everyone shall be paroled in 25 years,” Rummel. “Everyone shall get a parole hearing, while recognizing in the parole process that unless you don’t pose a danger to society, you remain in prison until you die.”
Rummel said that while some inmates pose a reasonable risk of danger, many do not.
“The recivitiviion rate for violence among people who are released through the parole process is less than 1 percent,” she said. “There is no one who is irreparably corrupt coming out of prison through the parole process.”
Rummel said that goes back to her original argument that there is a difference between a sentence that an inmate ultimately serves out if he or she is never granted parole, and an opportunity for an inmate to have a parole hearing and be released on parole.
“It’s life without parole unless you are actually paroled,” she said. “If you die in prison, then it is a life without parole sentence. They have not been paroled; they have not been released.”
Both Farrell and Judge Argueiles found that argument illogical.
“I get the argument,” Argueiles said. “The judge, in theory, can still say you get life without parole, and then you get a parole hearing? That is not life without parole, that is just life or 15-to-life or 25-to-life or whatever we do.”
Argueiles said that LWOP is still a viable sentence because the law still allows judges to have discretion, unless the Legislature goes back and passes SB 394 with two-thirds approval.
Farrell argued that the unconstitutional aspect of Ramazinni’s original sentence has been addressed with court proceedings, and that to continue allowing Ramazzini an opportunity to be released from prison would never allow the victim’s family and citizens of Colusa County any finality in this case.
Also at issue with the case is the state’s insistence that the Colusa County District Attorney’s Office had no standing to raise the argument, which the judge also tentatively decided in Colusa County’s favor.
“Who can police the state?” Farrell asked. “In this case, we have the Legislature acting in violation of the California constitution. The District Attorney’s Office of Colusa County is seeking to bar the application of an invalid law to their criminal sentence.”
Farrell said it should be noted that Colusa County brought attention to the Attorney General about this issue.
“We hoped that they would act, and they didn’t,” Farrell said. “So what happens? Are individual victims left on their own or is this a presidence to cut out local authority in their ability to make sure the state is acting constitutionally.”
Farrell said under the law, life without the “possibility” of parole is not just life without parole.
“That’s a very important word, and granting parole hearings obviously includes the possibility of parole, otherwise it would make no sense having them,” he said.
Judge Argueiles is expected to make his decision on the lawsuit by next week.
Ingebretsen’s sister, Devin Lombardi, a crime victims’ advocate, watched Friday’s proceedings online, and believes Colusa County will be the victor.
“I am so proud of the Colusa County District Attorney team, especially Brendan Farrell, for taking this on for us and keeping us in the loop the entire way,” Lombardi said afterward. “We are blessed to have such determined, hard-working individuals on our side. I am optimistic that Nathan’s opportunities for undeserved parole board hearings will be void after the official ruling by the Superior Court Judge. That is such a huge relief and burden lifted off our shoulders, as we were already preparing to attend his first parole hearing in July of 2021. We’ll deal with his remaining resentencing hearings and appeals as they come. But for now, I am going to enjoy this well-deserved and much, much needed victory.” ♣