After serving 15 years of a 19-year-to-life term for second-degree murder, John Vaden received an exceptionally rare commutation from California Gov. Jerry Brown.
In reaching his decision in April, the governor wrote, “Mr. Vaden’s crime has profoundly impacted (his victim’s family members), several of whom wrote to me to oppose clemency and express their enduring pain…
“Nevertheless, after carefully weighing this matter, I have concluded that Mr. Vaden has earned the chance to make his case before the Board of Parole Hearings so they can determine whether he is ready to be released from prison.
“In making this decision, I have given great weight to the recommendation of the warden of San Quentin, and the fact that Mr. Vaden—sent to an adult prison for a crime he committed as a 16-year-old—has resisted the powerful intimidation and pervasive pressures of criminal gangs that unfortunately wield power in our prisons. On the contrary, Mr. Vaden has availed himself of every opportunity to improve himself,” the governor added.
The governor also cited Vaden’s accomplishments, which included staying disciplinary-free, obtaining his GED, four vocational skills, and participating in multiple self-help groups.
Acknowledging the gift that he has been given, Vaden said, “This means the world to me because I get another chance at life and being a contributing member of society, as opposed to taking from it.
“I don’t believe that I deserved a commutation. I believe that it was an act of mercy by God through the governor and the Board of Parole Hearings.
“Mercy means withholding something I do deserve; I deserve being in prison for the rest of my life for senselessly taking another person’s life.”
In his plea for commutation, Vaden wrote, “I am no longer that 16-year-old boy who was not only rebellious and disrespectful toward authority figures but who struggled with low self-esteem, insecurities and peer pressure.”
Born and raised in South Sacramento, Vaden was the sixth of 12 children.
“Despite living in a crime-ridden neighborhood, I grew up very sheltered and in a religious household,” Vaden said.
“I was 10 years old when my father left us,” he said. “I lost my sense of security, and being the oldest boy in my family, I felt that it was my role to step up to take care of my family. So I sought male role models from my sisters’ boyfriends, who were gang members; they filled the void that my father left.”
Vaden’s life quickly spiraled out of control.
“I became disrespectful and bitter toward my mom. I also began acting out in school, until I was expelled in the eighth grade,” Vaden said.
“At 14, I joined a gang and began using and selling hardcore drugs like PCP and cocaine in the neighborhood.”
This trend would continue until one night, Vaden shot and killed a man during a botched drug transaction.
After his arrest, Vaden fought his case for more than a year before pleading guilty to second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 19 years-to-life at the age of 17.
Unlike most young offenders, who fall prey to peer pressure, Vaden made a decision to change his life early on.
“When I first came to juvenile hall at 16, I was wild, I was getting into fights, disrespecting staff and not following directions,” Vaden said. “After a year into my incarceration, I had a conversation with my grandma to turn my life over to Christ. That’s when my transformation started.”
Despite his commitment to change, it was not without its difficulty. At 17, when Vaden was sent to California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, he got a glimpse of what prison would hold for him.
“It was intimidating and overwhelming being in an adult prison,” Vaden said. “On my first week, I witnessed an assault. I saw multiple officers repeatedly beating and pepper spray a guy for three minutes while the guy was assaulting another inmate. It was a rude awakening.”
Through 15 years of his incarceration, Vaden attributes being disciplinary-free and focused to his relationship with God.
“My faith in Christ kept me out of trouble. I also surrounded myself with like-minded individuals, and I started to define myself by the principle of the Bible,” Vaden said.
On Sept. 20 the Board of Prison Hearings found Vaden suitable for parole.
“After I got found suitable, I realized that there were no winners. It was hard to be happy or excited when I just got done sitting face-to-face with the horrific impact I had on my victim’s family,” Vaden said.
Upon parole, Vaden said he plans on utilizing what he has learned from his prison experience to help his community by mentoring young people.