(CN) - The governor of California can deny parole to a convicted murderer even if the prisoner has shown years of rehabilitation and there is no new evidence that he poses a danger to society, a full panel of the 9th Circuit ruled.
The ruling by the 11-judge panel overturns the court's January 2008 decision that denying parole to a lifer who has gone for years without any disciplinary action violates the prisoner's due-process rights.
Convicted murderer Ronald Hayward sued the warden of the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo after his petitions for parole were repeatedly denied. Hayward had stabbed a man 12 times outside a bar in 1978, killing him, and received a prison sentence of 15 years to life.
While incarcerated, Hayward initially joined a white supremacist gang and ran drugs. He later turned spiritual and kept a clean disciplinary record for about 13 years, according to the ruling.
The California Board of Prison Terms twice found Hayward suitable for parole, but then-Gov. Grey Davis reversed both decisions. Hayward unsuccessfully sought habeas relief in state and federal court.
A three-judge panel in Pasadena ruled for Hayward, saying the governor violated Hayward's right by denying him parole without citing any hard evidence that he posed a danger to society.
In August 2008, two California Supreme Court rulings established that there had to be "some evidence" of a threat to deny parole.
The full 9th Circuit panel disagreed, ruling that federal law does not provide any such protection.
"The ruling is likely to be gravely disappointing to many of the 23,000-plus state prisoners serving life sentences who are technically eligible for parole and who have been watching the case," according to the Los Angeles Times.
"We overrule any decisions suggesting that the federal constitution imposes requirement of 'some evidence' of future dangerousness without regard to state law," Judge Andrew Kleinfeld wrote for the majority.
The appeals court also raised the bar for prisoners petitioning federal courts for parole, requiring them to get a "certificate of appealability" from a federal judge before they can proceed.
Judge Marsha Berzon disagreed in part, saying "the majority's lengthy discussion of the non-issue of a blanket federal 'some evidence' requirement for parole decisions is replete with errors and misdirection."
Judges Sidney Thomas, Raymond Fisher and Richard Paez joined Berzon's partial concurrence and partial dissent.