Quadriplegic Prisoner is First in California to get Medical Parole Hearing

By Sam Stanton

Steven Charles Martinez is a 42-year-old quadriplegic who cannot care for himself in any way. He cannot feed or bathe himself, cannot brush his teeth.

Because Martinez is an inmate at Corcoran State Prison, taxpayers are providing well over $500,000 annually for his medical care, and will continue to do so if he remains in prison for the rest of his life, which was the intent of his 157-years-to-life sentence.

“If he lives another 20 years, without adjusting for inflation, the citizens of California can expect to pay $10 million to continue to incarcerate him,” his attorney noted in one court filing.

Whether the state continues to incur those costs will be decided in a hearing that starts Tuesday, when Martinez becomes the first state prison inmate to face a medical parole hearing.

Under a state law signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in September, inmates who are found to be in a vegetative or highly incapacitated state and deemed to pose no threat to society can win release from prison if the Board of Parole Hearings approves. The legislation was passed as a cost-saving measure, with supporters arguing it could cut California’s prison costs by tens of millions of dollars annually.

About 40 inmates have been identified so far as eligible for the hearings, including five sent to prison under the state’s “three-strikes” law. Some who are in custody in acute care facilities outside of prisons cost taxpayers up to $2 million annually for medical care and supervision.

Inmates on death row and those serving a sentence of life without parole are not eligible for early release under the law, and inmates who win medical parole and later see their health conditions improve could be returned to custody.

“Right now, we have approximately 40 that we have identified through our doctors as patients that meet the criteria up and down the state of California,” said Joyce Hayhoe, legislative director for prison receiver J. Clark Kelso, who has been appointed by federal courts to oversee the state’s prison health care.

The law was sponsored by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and is one of a series of recent efforts to trim prison costs by paroling inmates deemed to pose no threat if they are released.

Whether Martinez fits the bill is still up for debate.

His criminal record dates to 1987 and includes arrests for assault with a deadly weapon, battery, resisting a public officer and receiving stolen property. He entered prison on Dec. 28, 1998, after being convicted in a brutal rape and kidnap case.

In March of that year, Martinez rammed his car into two women near San Diego as they were leaving a nightclub, and pinned one beneath his car.

“After grabbing the incapacitated woman by the throat and punching her in the face, breaking her nose, Martinez placed her in the back seat of the car and drove to a secluded location, where he forcibly committed various sexual acts upon the battered and bloodied woman,” the 3rd District Court of Appeal wrote in an opinion last month on Martinez’s efforts to win release.

A police officer on patrol found them in the car, and Martinez was later convicted and sentenced to 165 years in prison. His sentence was ultimately reduced to 157 years.

He entered prison at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility near San Diego as a healthy man, and within months was transferred to Centinela State Prison. On Feb. 3, 2001, two inmates attacked Martinez in a prison yard and stabbed him in the neck, lacerating his spinal cord and rendering him a quadriplegic.

“Martinez requires extraordinary nursing care because of his total inability to care for himself in any way,” a June 2002 prison memo stated. “He requires feeding, frequent position changes (every two hours), wheelchairing, oral hygiene, cleaning of his body and bed clothing on a frequent basis due to his incontinence.”

His attorney, Ken Karan of Carlsbad, declined to comment for this story. But he has argued previously that Martinez should be released to the custody of his parents and allowed to live in their San Diego County home. They have said they would see to his medical needs.

“Even after his release, he will remain a prisoner in his own body for the rest of his life,” Karan wrote in one court filing. “Nothing more can be done to balance the scales of justice.”

Martinez’s mother, Norma, a retired credit union executive, declined to discuss her son’s case.

Not everyone believes Martinez would pose no threat if released.

His case went before the state Board of Parole Hearings in 2008 and again in 2010 under the state’s “compassionate release” program.

Under that law, the board can recommend to a court that it “recall” an inmate’s sentence if he is medically incapacitated and deemed not to pose a threat.

Both the warden and chief medical officer at the Corcoran prison recommended he be released. Despite that, the corrections department recommended that the parole board deny his release. Both times, the board did just that. In a 2010 decision, it stated that “the vile nature” of his crimes and his verbal threats against nurses caring for him and bathing him made him ineligible.

“Martinez’s mental state remains unchanged,” the board concluded last September. “He remains a violent person capable of using others to carry out his threats.”

The 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento agreed in an order last month.

Citing similar reasons, the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office will oppose his release in the latest effort, said Deputy District Attorney Richard Sachs.

Only two other medical parole hearings have been scheduled so far, but dozens of others are expected to follow suit in hearings statewide.


Originally printed in the Sacramento Bee, May 19, 2011,@ http://www.sacbee.com/2011/05/19/3637751/quadriplegic-prisoner-is-first.html