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Erik’s Law, a bill aimed to repeal certain protections in California that allow juveniles originally sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) multiple opportunities to get out of prison, failed last week in the state’s Public Safety Committee. 

AB 655, co-authored by Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, and Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber), was named after Erik Ingebretsen, of Colusa, who was brutally murdered by his childhood best friends, Nathan Ramazzini and Leo Contreras, in 1997, when the boys were teenagers. 

Ramazzini, according to psychological tests performed as an adult in preparation for his 2018 resentencing hearing, showed an assessment risk for Antisocial Personality Disorder (sociopath) greater than 99 percent of the general population, and that he still poses a threat to society if he is ever released, court records indicate. 

Colusa County Superior Court Judge  Jeffrey A. Thompson upheld Ramazzini’s original sentence on the ground that Ramazzini is that rare juvenile offender who is irreparable and should remain in prison for life. 

Gallagher, who addressed the committee on Jan. 14, said his bill was written to address the deficiency in California’s new juvenile “second chance” laws, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017, which give all LWOP inmates, who committed their crimes as juveniles, a chance to be resentenced (SB 9) and then multiple opportunities at parole (SB 394) to show the state they are rehabilitated, are remorseful for their crime (regardless of how heinous), and that they have changed their behavior and character. 

“My bill does not roll back any of those things,” Gallagher said. “It does not change those concepts in the law. What it actually does is marry those two things together. It marries those two concepts together. It also helps us answer the question that is still unanswered by our law: what about someone who, in fact, is irreparably corrupt? What about someone who is a sociopath and has not changed, and that all the evidence and the findings show has not changed? There are people out there (like this). They exist. They are truly sociopaths. They don’t show remorse.” 

Gallagher said AB 655 would uphold the basic tenant of the new resentencing law, but would require the court to consider specified factors in making the determination, including whether the defendant had a history of abuse as a child, the circumstances of the offense, and any evidence or information bearing on the possibility of rehabilitation, among other things. 

Gallagher said there is general agreement among psychological experts that inmates like Ramazzini, who admittedly grew up in a loving home free of physical and/or sexual abuse, are incapable of rehabilitation, and that the law should have protections in place so sociopaths sentenced to LWOP do not get repeated opportunities to be released upon society. 

Colusa County Chief Deputy District Attorney Brendan Farrell, who also testified at the hearing, agreed that AB 665 is a just solution to remedy expensive and time consuming hearings, which  the Legislature originally intended with prison reform before they passed SB 394, which provides all LWOP prisoners who committed their crimes before they were 18 multiple opportunities to be released after serving 25 years in prison. 

Farrell said SB 394 did not fix the situation, but added insult to injury by providing no guidance on how many parole hearings will be provided or how frequently. 

“This bill is balanced,” Farrell said, of AB 665. “It provides just sentencing for all juvenile LWOP and maintains minimal hearings for the truly dangerous.” 

Victims rights advocate, Devon Lombardi, reminded the Public Safety Committee that her brother, Erik, was killed by two of his friends, and that Contreras has since been rehabilitated and released on parole; a second chance that she and her family are at peace with. 

“Leo always maintained his remorse for his part in Erik’s murder,” Lombardi said. “The same could not be said for Nathan Ramazzini, who, at 16, planned, executed, and attempted to cover up what he did to Erik: four blows to the head with a bat and 19 fatal stab wounds, including a slit throat.” 

Valerie Ingebretsen, Erik’s mother, and Scott Vedo, Erik’s uncle, were among Erik’s friends and family members who urged the Pubic Safety Committee to pass Gallagher’s bill.  

Several members of law enforcement associations also showed their support.

Voicing opposition at the hearing to AB 665 included former gang member Pablo Grenada, who said his trauma-filled childhood of abuse and neglect led him to participate as a juvenile in a drive-by shooting that resulted in the death of another youth. 

“I was condemned to life without parole,” he said. “The sentence confirmed what I thought of myself. No one thought I could be a good person.”

Grenada, who claimed tremendous remorse for his crimes, was eventually released following the passage of SB 9, and is now a drug and alcohol counselor working with juvenile and adult inmates to reduce recidivism.

“That law gave me hope and showed me that you believed that I could change,” he said. “I worked for years to change my life and become the person I believe I was meant to be.”

Also speaking against the bill was shooting victim, Joshua “Gunner” Johnson, who said the trauma of the shooting at age 15 and his own upbringing led him on a downward spiral into drug addiction, which he turned around after forgiving his offender and aiding him in his parole. 

“Individuals who commit crimes at a young age can mature into responsible and social adults,” Johnson said. “They should not be condemned to die in prison.” 

The Public Safety Committee voted against AB 655 because they felt the parole board, while they have the authority to, would not likely schedule parole hearings every 18 months to three years for LWOP inmates determined to be unremorseful, corrupt, or continues to commit violence in prison, but every 10 to 15 years, as they are allowed to by current law. 

“Not for the rare group of people who Mr. Gallagher and the District Attorney are referring to, where there has been a finding of high risk, a likelihood of recidivism, or psychopathy or sociopathy, or continued violence in prison,” said Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, a member of the committee. “Not for those people. Although it is true, the law requires the parole board to make a determination about how much longer it would take for one to meet their very high standard of not posing any danger to society or the community, so that those who meet that or are close to the standard may return to the parole board within 18 months or three years. But those are very different to the group of people that we are concerned about.” 

Gallagher, who agreed that juvenile offenders should not be just locked up with the key thrown away, believes the current policy has proven and will prove otherwise, and that inmates, like Ramazzini, will receive multiple parole hearings during their lifetime, causing the families of victims to relive the crime over and over again. 

Ramazzini, 38, who showed no remorse for killing Erik during his own 2018 resentencing testimony, likened the murder to Nike’s “Just Do It,” campaign. He will be eligible for his first parole hearing in July 2021.

“We believe in second chances, but not for those incapable of remorse,” Lombardi said. “That is all Erik’s Law is trying to address.”

AB 665 failed in the Public Safety Committee by a vote of 4-2. 

While he voted against the bill, Chairman Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer, Sr. said he would appreciate more discussion on ways to close any gap that may exist that does or potentially could release the irreparable back into society, or if families of the victims become overburdened by having to attend repeated parole hearings. 

“This measure failed in this committee, but it didn’t fail,” Jones-Sawyer said. ■