Convicted murderer chronicled in Times series closer to freedom
Convicted murderer John Paul Madrona, profiled in a Times series chronicling life inside a state prison hospice, has taken a step toward freedom after a two-person panel from the parole board pronounced him ready to leave.
Madrona, a former Carson-area gang member who murdered a bystander in 1993, no longer poses "a danger to society or a threat to public safety if released from prison," said Board of Parole Hearings Commissioner Jack Garner, who along with his fellow panelist noted the positive strides the convict has made while in confinement.
Wednesday's decision, Garner said, "is one we feel you deserved. You've changed."
The ruling, made in a wood-paneled conference room at the California Medical Facility prison, was the most important hurdle for Madrona to pass in his bid for freedom -- if he’d been denied he probably would have had to wait three years for another hearing, and possibly several years more. But additional hurdles remain.
The panel's decision now faces review by the state's full parole board to determine if any mistakes were made during the hearing. Gov. Jerry Brown also can weigh in. If the decision makes it past Brown's desk, Madrona will probably have to wait about six more years before he leaves prison, the added time partly caused by demerits, such as failing to show up for a prison job.
As he'd done for much of Wednesday's three-hour hearing, the 36-year-old Madrona remained calm, though his eyes filled with tears.
This was his first parole hearing and the result was something of a surprise because murderers are not usually granted parole on their first attempt.
"It's extraordinarily rare," said Luis Patino, a spokesman for the Board of Parole Hearings. "In my two years on this job, that's the first time I've heard of anyone getting that."
Madrona, a Philippine national who will probably be deported upon release, was whisked away after the hearing, leaving comment to his attorney.
"There's still a long road ahead," Rich Pfeiffer said. "But the question is, can this man be more good to society on the outside than on the inside? The man we see today is clearly someone who will do more good on the outside."
Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. David Dahle, on hand for the hearing, was less sanguine.
"I'm disappointed," said Dahle, who argued that Madrona did not fully realize the damage he had caused and should remain in prison. Dahle also said demerits Madrona received, the last about four years ago when he took a small amount of food from his job in the prison kitchen, should have stalled his bid for freedom.
"This sets a bad precedent," Dahle said.
Madrona's crime took place during the height of L.A.'s gang wars. In November 1993, at age 18, Madrona and a fellow gang member went to the apartment of a rival gang member, intending to kill the man. They knocked on the door, and when it opened they fired. They didn't know at the time, however, that they'd knocked on the wrong door and had shot an environmental chemist named Tracy Takahashi.
Caught shortly after the killing, Madrona and his accomplice were both convicted of murder in 1994 and sentenced to 30 years to life with the possibility of parole. After a few years in prison, Madrona began to change, leaving the gang, reflecting deeply on his crime, and eventually becoming, according to prison officials, a model inmate.
He ended up at the Vacaville prison, where he took a job working in the 17-bed hospice wing, one of the nation's first such facilities. There, Madrona trained to provide end-of-life care to fellow inmates and became a valued leader within the hospice, earning praise even from hardened guards.
Takahashi's family chose not to attend Wednesday's hearing. Reached by telephone for comment once it was over, Takahashi's brother, Dean, said he believes Madrona "is on the right path."
The two-member panel acknowledged the horrific nature of the crime but also noted Madrona’s efforts to change. He has taken scores of community-college-level classes, many focused on self-improvement and psychology. He leads Alcoholics Anonymous and gang-intervention groups. Prison guards wrote to the panel, lauding his leadership and integrity. Deputy Parole Commissioner Stewart Gardner said such letters "say volumes about who you are every day" inside the prison.
During the hearing, Madrona somberly answered the panel's questions about the murder, whether he has really changed, his plans to relocate to his native Philippines, and the depth of his remorse.
The Times series noted that he had struggled for years to finish a letter to the Takahashi family, expressing his sorrow, but that on each attempt he was overcome by emotion.
The finished letter was part of the packet Madrona presented at the hearing, and he’d hoped to present it to the Takahashis.
"I can't imagine his mom's pain when she heard the call that her son was killed," he said, his head bowed. "I know I was wrong. I am sorry for that."
--Kurt Streeter in Vacaville, Calif.
Photo: Inmate pastoral care worker John Paul Madrona, left, greets hospice patient Troy "Pineapple" Kamakona inside the California Medical Facility in Vacaville last year. Kamakona, who was serving a life sentence for the murder of his wife, is now deceased. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times