On a sunny day last June, convicted murderer Ernest Morgan stood in a courtyard at San Quentin State Prison chatting animatedly about his plans for life on the outside.

It was the day he would find out whether Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would let stand a state Board of Parole Hearings decision that found him suitable for release after more than 20 years behind bars. Morgan was serving a sentence of 15 years to life on a second-degree murder conviction out of Alameda County.

Later that day, a notice came in from the governor’s office.

Morgan’s parole had been denied.

A 1988 state constitutional amendment approved by California voters allows the governor to overturn parole board decisions in murder cases. Since then, governors have used that power to reverse hundreds of parole board decisions that would have freed inmates sentenced to life with the possibility of parole.

“It’s very frustrating because you’re in this limbo period,” said Michael Satris, a Bolinas attorney who represents life inmates and condemned prisoners.

“You finally are vindicated, you’ve gotten your piece of gold from the board, which is almost impossible to get as it is because they themselves have a minuscule rate of parole grants,” only to have the governor reverse the decision, he said.

Morgan, now 41, went before the parole board again on Dec. 6 and was found suitable for release a second time.

His hopes now lie with Gov. Jerry Brown, who has not yet stated what his approach will be to such cases.

The governor’s office declined to comment for this story but Brown spokeswoman Elizabeth Ashford said that in his first three weeks in office, Brown reversed three parole board recommendations to release convicted murderers from prison, including Andrew Otton, who killed a drug dealer in San Mateo County in 1982.

Those following the issue say it’s too early to tell whether Brown will be more hands-off than previous governors.

Schwarzenegger reversed about 70 percent of parole board grants for convicted murderers during his time in office, according to a review of reports from the governor’s office.

However, he was lenient compared to his predecessor, Gov. Gray Davis, allowing the release of hundreds of inmates serving life sentences. Davis allowed only nine to be paroled, although the parole board also recommended a much lower number of inmates for release during his tenure.

Statistics compiled by the group Crime Victims Action Alliance show that Gov. Pete Wilson allowed a far higher percentage of inmates to be freed than both Davis and Schwarzenegger.

Those on both sides of the issue say there are already positive signs in Brown’s early actions.

“We have high hopes with Gov. Brown because he’s already sent a message to us that the door is open and he would want to work with us,” said Harriet Salarno, president of Crime Victims United of California.

Brown is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at a fundraiser for the organization in Sacramento on Feb. 22, she said.

“This is major, major for crime victims,” she said. “Gov. Schwarzenegger, no one could get through his door. Not legislators – both Republicans and Democrats – or us.”

“We understand that there is a budget crisis and we know that we all have to work together,” she said. “At least he recognizes this.”

Keith Wattley, who founded UnCommon Law, an Oakland-based organization that represents life inmates seeking parole, says he is “very cautiously optimistic” about Brown.

“The early returns are that things are changing under Gov. Brown,” Wattley said. “The feedback we’re getting from institutions is that a lot of people are going home, a couple dozen in the past few weeks.”

He said it is not clear how many of those inmates were released because of decisions made on Brown’s watch.

Attorney Michael Beckman, who challenged Schwarzenegger’s 2008 reversal of a parole board decision to free his client Joseph Calderon, an inmate convicted of murdering a security guard in San Francisco’s Mission District in 1993, is also watching Brown closely.

“We’re hoping that Jerry Brown and Kamala Harris will be a little bit better…He’s not the Jerry Brown from the 1980s, that’s for sure,” Beckman said.

In May, a state appeals court ruled that Schwarzenegger was unjustified in blocking Calderon’s release. Calderon has since been freed and is living in San Francisco, Beckman said.

Hundreds of other court cases challenging parole board denials and gubernatorial reversals are pending, according to Wattley.

Morgan, the San Quentin inmate, is hoping Brown will see he is no longer the lost, angry 18-year-old who committed an unthinkable crime.

On the evening of Sept. 4, 1987, Morgan killed his 14-year-old stepsister with a sawed-off shotgun when she came home as he was burglarizing his stepfather’s Oakland apartment.

Morgan, who lived with his father after his parents divorced in 1971, had been running away from home since age 10 and had been in trouble for crimes ranging from graffiti to auto theft.

The murder devastated the family and Morgan began a life behind bars where he earned his GED, participated in a slew of programs over two decades, and says he became a reformed man.

Among the most powerful programs for him, he said, was San Quentin Utilization of Inmate Resources, Experiences and Studies, or SQUIRES, which brings young offenders on visits to San Quentin to learn the reality of life behind bars.

One of Morgan’s turning points occurred during one such visit, when he was asked to go into a room and talk to one of the boys in the program, he said.

The boy told Morgan his mother had been getting upset about some of the things he was doing and that he thought she was overreacting.

“I asked him to explain some things and he kept dancing around the point,” Morgan said.

Then the boy said something that shook Morgan to his core – he mentioned a day when he had been sitting at home with a sawed-off shotgun while his sister was in the next room.

“Something hit me,” Morgan said. “I broke down crying, started him crying. He didn’t understand why he was crying. I shared my story with him.”

“It made me look back at a lot of things,” he said.

Morgan said that was one of many transformative moments for him in prison. He said that if released he would continue his crime prevention and rehabilitation work in the community.

When Schwarzenegger denied his parole last year, the governor noted a number of positives, including Morgan’s clean disciplinary record in prison and a job offer to work as a case manager for at-risk youth in San Francisco upon his release.

However, he highlighted among other concerns a letter from Morgan’s mother saying she feared for her safety if he were freed and inconsistent statements made by Morgan over the years, including that the shooting was an accident.

Schwarzenegger concluded that Morgan’s release would present “a current, unreasonable risk to public safety.”

Morgan’s attorney, Johanna Hoffmann, said Morgan’s mother now believes the interaction that prompted her to write the letter was a misunderstanding.

And Morgan admits that he lied to the parole board in the past, before he came to accept full responsibility for his crime.

His mother and stepfather, who now live in Louisiana, visited him over Thanksgiving and want him to be freed, Hoffmann said.

“He continues to have their full support when he’s released, which is pretty phenomenal under the circumstances, especially for his stepfather,” Hoffmann said.

Even in cases where inmates appear to have bettered themselves in prison, there is still the fear that a released violent offender could hurt more people.

Salarno, of Crime Victims United, is skeptical that most murderers can be rehabilitated.

Her daughter, Catina Salarno, was murdered at age 18 by her ex-boyfriend Steven Burns on Sept. 3, 1979.

Catina Salarno had just graduated from Mercy High School in San Francisco and was about to begin classes at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. Burns remains behind bars.

Harriet Salarno believes each case must be considered individually, but said she has come across few inmates in her 32 years as a crime victims’ advocate who she believes have been rehabilitated.

“They’re good inside a prison because they’re contained and they can’t commit any crimes,” she said. “It’s different when you come back into an environment of freedom.”

Salarno said her organization’s goal is simply to keep people from becoming victims of crime.

“Our job is public safety,” she said.

Photo: Ernest Morgan, right, is pictured with fellow inmate John Taylor at San Quentin State Prison on June 4, 2010, hours before he learned that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had reversed a parole board decision to release him from prison.

Melissa McRobbie, Bay City News

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