Feb. 1 – For the fifth time in seven years, a California parole board has found Bruce Davis suitable for release. The decision was made earlier today, at Davis’ 31st parole hearing, held at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo.
The parole board’s decision will undergo a 120-day review, after which Governor Jerry Brown will have 30 days to reverse, modify, affirm or decline to review the decision.
Davis, 74, serving a life term for his role in the 1969 murders of Gary Hinman and Donald “Shorty” Shea, has previously been recommended for parole in the past four consecutive hearings, but has seen all four of those recommendations reversed by the Governor’s office during the executive review process.
Davis turned himself in outside of the Hall of Justice on December 7, 1970, after evading capture for nearly a year. Davis’ trial began in late 1971 and lasted four months. On March 14, 1972, Davis was convicted on two counts of First Degree Murder and one count of Conspiracy to Commit Murder and Robbery. Judge Raymond Choate sentenced Davis to a life term the following month.
“These were vicious murders indicating a depraved state of mind on the part of the defendant,” said Choate during sentencing. “I don’t want to give the impression that he was at all a dupe or the foil of Charles Manson. Davis is much older than most of the youngsters that were led by Manson. He is more intelligent and educated and more capable of independent reasoning. For reasons only known to him, he did not exercise that reasoning.”
Davis has only two rules infractions in over four decades of incarceration, the last one occurring over 37 years ago. He received a write-up in 1975 for sharpening a spoon and one for conduct in 1980. Davis has received a Master’s degree from Borean School of the Bible and a Doctorate degree in philosophy and religion from Bethany Seminary, graduating summa cum laude. While incarcerated Davis has married and fathered a child. His marriage has since ended in divorce.
“Bruce is the single most rehabilitated inmate I’ve represented in the California prison system,” wrote attorney Michael Beckman, who has represented Davis since 2000.
After receiving 23 consecutive one-year denials, Bruce Davis was recommended for parole for the first time on January 28, 2010. The decision, however, was reversed in June of 2012 by then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who wrote, “I believe his release would pose an unreasonable risk of danger to society at this time.”
In preparation for Davis’ 2012 hearing, the first hearing since Davis’ initial recommendation, the District Attorney’s office did two things. Deputy District Attorney Patrick Sequeira actively sought out next-of-kin from the Hinman and Shea families, who thus far had never attended any of Davis’ hearings. Sequeira wanted to notify the families of the upcoming hearing, perhaps hopeful they would provide impact statements to appeal to the board.
Sequeira also began pressing to acquire the 1969 tape-recorded statements made by Charles “Tex” Watson with his Texas attorney, Bill Boyd. Publicly, the Los Angeles Police Department sought the recordings for possible clues for unsolved crimes. But within the District Attorney’s office, where efforts to acquire the tapes had originated, Sequeira was hopeful that the tapes could provide material for him to use at Davis’ upcoming parole hearing.
Sequeira was unable to get the tapes in time for the hearing, but managed to secure statements from relatives of Gary Hinman and Donald Shea. Kay Martley, Gary Hinman’s cousin and Phyllis Shea Murphy, Donald Shea’s first wife, submitted impact statements. Neither Martley nor Murphy attended the hearing, but their statements were read to the parole board by Sharon Tate’s sister, Debra Tate and former Manson family member, Barbara Hoyt.
Despite their efforts, Davis was recommended for parole for the second time. After the decision passed its initial review, newly appointed District Attorney, Jackie Lacey, pleaded with California Governor Jerry Brown to reverse the decision.
“Davis has been diagnosed with narcissistic and antisocial personality traits. He consistently blames everyone but himself for his criminal and antisocial behavior,” wrote Lacey. “It is evident that Davis lacks insight, genuine remorse and understanding of the gravity of his crimes.”
On March 1, 2013, Governor Brown reversed the parole board’s decision stating Davis was still unsuitable for release into society because of the heinous nature of the crimes. Brown’s reversal highlighted areas where, over the years, he felt Davis had minimized his role in both the Manson family and their crimes. The governor also questioned how truthful Davis had been, stating as an example, that Davis hadn’t mentioned Larry Jones being present during the Shea murder until his 2010 parole hearing.
“Davis’s choice to withhold information regarding the crimes and the identity of a potential crime partner indicates to me that his commitment to the Manson Family still exceeds his commitment to the community,” wrote Brown.
Davis came up for parole again in March of 2014 and this time Kay Martley attended the hearing in person. It was the first time a family member of one of Davis’ victims had attended one of his hearings. The board commended Davis on his institutional programming and once again found him suitable. Five months later, on the weekend of the 45th anniversary of the Tate-LaBianca murders, Governor Brown once again reversed Davis’ parole grant.
“I asked Davis to explain why he has shielded other Family members from prosecution by withholding information about these crimes, and to finally reveal what he knows,” Brown wrote in his reversal decision. “I asked him to reconcile his version of being a follower with the evidence that he was a leader who actively championed the Family’s values. He did not address these concerns at his most recent parole hearing. For the same reasons I articulated last year, I find that Davis is not suitable for parole.”
Davis came before the board again in August of 2015 and for the second consecutive hearing, so did Kay Martley.
“Although it has been 46 years since Gary was murdered, the passing of time has not diminished the impact of this horrendous crime and our family continues to serve a life sentence of heartbreak, grief, and loss,” Martley told the board. “I’m here today to respectfully ask the Board to require Mr. Davis to serve a sentence that is no less than the one my family is now serving, a term of life.”
Despite this plea, the parole board found Davis suitable for release and again his fate went onto the Governor’s desk where months later the decision was overturned.
“The horror of the murders committed by the Manson family in 1969 and the fear they instilled in the public will never be forgotten,” wrote Brown when reversing Davis’ parole recommendation in January of 2016. “I have reversed grants of parole to Davis twice before, not only because of his atrocious crimes, but also because he minimized the nature and extent of his responsibility for these murders and his role in the Manson family.”
The District Attorney’s office view Davis as an unreasonable risk to society while Beckman sees him as a reformed man that has become a political prisoner because of his link to Manson. There’s little reason to believe anything will be different this time around.
It’s been nearly four years since the District Attorney’s office took possession of the Tex Watson tapes. Despite their eagerness to get them to use at parole hearings, to date, they never have.
“If they contained anything negative about Bruce,” wrote Beckman, “you can be certain the DA would have trotted it in as soon as the tapes became available.”
Governor Brown will have until July 1st to weigh in on the decision.