MODESTO — Three years ago, Sandy Ranzo Howell and other family members drove from Modesto to San Luis Obispo for a parole hearing involving murderer and rapist Marty Don Spears. They were joined by Stanislaus County Deputy District Attorney Beth OHara Owen, who argued successfully against releasing the man who killed Phil Ranzo, then raped and killed Kathy Ranzo at the couples Modesto home in 1979.
Spears was just 17 at the time. He and three accomplices Ronald Anderson, Jeffrey Maria and Darren Lee all were convicted in 1980 and sentenced to life terms. Three years later, the Rose Bird-led state Supreme Court converted three of the sentences to two consecutive 25 years-to-life terms because they were 17 or younger when convicted.
Spears had admitted that he killed both Ranzos, and the 2011 parole hearing was his first after 31 years in prison. The commissioners determined Spears wasnt ready for freedom and still constituted a risk to society. They told him hed need to wait seven more years for another hearing, suggesting he use the time to come to grips with what hed done that day nearly 35 years ago, and take responsibility. His accounts of the murders seemed to vary over the years.
Since that day in February 2011, commissioners also denied parole for Anderson, Maria and Lee. Howell, Phil Ranzos sister, attended every one of the hearings and spoke against releasing them. So did the Ranzos son, Mark, who was only 7 years old and playing just down the street when his parents were murdered.
Each hearing stirred up feelings of grief, sadness and anger. Howell and Mark Ranzo thought they were done attending them for at least the next five years or so. But last week, Howell received a letter from the Bureau of Parole Hearings informing her that Spears now in San Quentin is requesting another hearing under Penal Code Section 3041.5. The section allows a hearing in advance of the prescribed date if there is a change in circumstances or new information establishes a reasonable likelihood that consideration of the public safety does not require an additional period of incarceration.
The letter also explains that Howell could obtain a copy of the killers petition and documentation supporting his claim that he is a new, improved and harmless Marty Don Spears. He cited SB 260, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September. It mandates that parole commissioners consider releasing juvenile offenders who have served at least 15 years of a lengthy sentence. A glitch here: Registered sex offenders which Spears will be, if hes ever released are excluded from SB 260 consideration.
Otherwise, his 60 pages of paperwork include commendations, favorable job reviews, substance abuse treatment, and certificates of completion from numerous programs and courses while in prison. The paperwork includes letters from transitional programs willing to work with him should he be released. And it includes a letter from Assemblyman Mark D. Leno, D-San Francisco, offering congratulations because Spears completed an anger management class.
All of that is interesting. Hes spending his time wisely. But none of that impresses Howell, Mark Ranzo or OHara. To them, Spears is and always will be the sadistic, drugged-out punk who beat Phil and Kathy Ranzo to death with their sons baseball bat, raped Kathy and stabbed them multiple times just to make sure they were dead. There is nothing he can do to convince them he deserves the opportunity to resume life on the outside again after murdering the Ranzos so brutally.
Spears packet also contains the same psychological evaluation commissioners relied on in 2011, when they denied his parole. While the psychologist deemed him a low to moderate risk to reoffend if released, the doctor also said Spears has not taken full responsibility for his criminal behavior, his choices, and their consequences, and ultimately the commission of the life crime. Spears since has written a letter of apology to the board for not being completely honest and forthcoming at my initial (2011) hearing and concludes by apologizing to the Ranzo family. Was it sincere and genuine, or just lip service?
So what really has changed in the past three years? Californias prisons are overcrowded and must decrease their populations. Nonviolent offenders are the first out the door. Convince the parole board youve learned your lesson, that you are no longer a threat to society no longer a violent criminal and just maybe youll improve your chances of being paroled. After all, the state needs the extra bed. Spears request is one of three the DAs office has received in recent months.
Howell has until March 22 to convince the parole commission in writing that no amount of self-improvement over the past three years merits bumping up Spearss next parole hearing by four.
And if the commission grants his wish and advances the hearing date?
I will be there, Howell said.