As a journalist, when I do a story profile on an inmate at San Quentin, I first look for individuals who demonstrate a willingness to change. Has he come to terms with and does he understand why he committed his crime?
From sitting in circles with men, I have found that men who struggle with telling the entire truth about their offenses are worried about their images and what others might think. However, as time goes on, people who regularly attend sessions in the circle hear stories very similar to their own. This allows everyone to open up and find his own truth.
Some men sit in prison for 30 or 40 years and are never able to demonstrate to the parole board that they have changed their ways.
Sometimes they have difficulty articulating their insight into the root causes of why they committed their crime. Or sometimes they cannot accept full responsibility for committing their crime.
Stanley L. Baer, 56, from San Diego County is one of those who struggled, but eventually came to terms with his crime.
He appeared before the parole board shortly after the Marsy’s Law was enacted in 2009. This law allowed parole boards to extend the time between parole hearings for lifers by as much as 15 years.
Baer is the second person I know who received a seven-year denial from a parole board. As I read his transcripts, I couldn’t understand why he received a seven-year denial.
Baer was arrested in October of 1995 in Flagstaff, Az., extradited to California and charged with second-degree murder.
“I went to trial because I wanted to tell the truth about my crime,” Baer said. “I also needed Lorie’s family to hear the truth about what happened to their loved one.”
After sentencing, in May of 1996, Baer arrived at the reception center at Richard J. Donavan Correctional Facility. He was later transferred to Pelican Bay.
While at Pelican Bay, he was assigned to building maintenance. He was eventually transferred to a yard where he earned a certificate of completion in mill and cabinet making.
Baer came to San Quentin State Prison in 2002. He said on arriving here he felt like he had been set free. He has completed many programs while here.
During the many times we’ve attended groups together, I came to consider Baer a man who has grown and matured. I’ve always been impressed with how he came to terms with his actions and accepting full responsibility for the murder of his wife Lorie.
During a Victims Offenders Education Group (VOEG) session, he was able to talk about a secret he carried for 47 years.
Baer said when he was 5 years old, his mother put him and his two brothers in bed and set it on fire. His grandmother and father rescued them and had his mother arrested.
She was placed in a mental hospital for five months. When she was released, they were told never to discuss or repeat what happened.
In VOEG, he also revealed that his father didn’t graduate from high school and worked at cutting and baling hay for a penny a bale.
He said that his father did all of this hard work so he could marry his mother. But later, his father became physically abusive to his mother, even in front of Baer’s brothers and sisters.
Baer was devastated when his parents subsequently divorced while he was in the Marine Corps. He joined in 1976 and received an honorable discharge in 1982.
Baer’s mother died in 2004 at age 64. In 1986, his brother Ted had committed suicide. Another brother, George, committed suicide in 1999.
Baer has no juvenile record. His criminal record consists of being arrested in 1988 for assault with a deadly weapon, but the charges were dropped. In 1993 he was arrested again for assault with a deadly weapon and with corporal injury to his spouse. He butted her on the head.
After two failed marriages and having two children, he married his third wife, Lorie. They were married for almost four years before he took her life by strangulation. Baer says he was using a sleeper hold (or choke hold) in an attempt to quiet her down. He admitted their relationship was rocky and abusive.
“It was a bad situation. I should have walked away from it when I had the opportunity,” he said. “Had I known all the coping skills I learned over the years in these programs, this would have never happened and Lorie would be with us today.”
His relationship with his kids is excellent, he says. When they lived close by, he saw them every three months. He has four grandchildren.
The parole board told Baer; that their “sole purpose is to determine his suitability for parole.”
Baer said the board told him that they are not there to retry his case. But just like Baer, other inmates tell me:
“I felt like I was on trial again.”
Commissioner Kane told Baer why he thought he was not suitable for parole. “The offense was carried out in a manner which demonstrates an exceptionally callous disregard for human suffering. The motive of the crime was inexplicable. We don’t know why you killed her. You are a trained Marine, but you might not fully have the insight and remorse of why you did it and be truthful about why you did it”
Baer accepts full responsibility for his crime and does not want to minimize the truth. He knows that if he is found suitable, he must continue to involve himself in the sort of self-help, transformative programs that he participated in while in prison. The process of change takes ongoing dedication.
But the essential question is: what does an inmate have to do to be found suitable for parole if he is always being retried by the parole board for the case that got him into prison?
Like Baer, many incarcerated individuals undergo the hard work that is required of them by various programs to show they have changed and are not the same person they were when they committed their crimes. However, that hard work is not given the full credit that it deserves by the board.
The legal question that the board asks and answers: Is this person a threat to public safety? And, if their answer is yes: Is there some evidence to show his or her dangerousness?
Receiving a life sentence in California is an ongoing and agonizing punishment.
Before facing the parole board, the person understands that a parole date is not automatic. Significant work must be done to affect a change in your life condition.
You have to reconcile your past and present attitude with your proposed future course of conduct and behavior. You must face the truth of your committed offense.
The one big reality you must understand is “insight.”
Baer will appear again before the parole board in January 2016.