After reading the transcripts of prisoner Duane Edward Holt, it became apparent to me that he is living in an abyss, lost in an enormous black hole with no light. Holt is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder. He never knows when he will be released.
At his fourth parole board appearance on Jan. 8, he was denied parole for lack of insight and minimizing his role in the March 24, 1987, murder of Richard John Urban Jr.
Five years later after Holt’s conviction, Robert Curl was found guilty of the same murder. Curl now sits on Death Row at San Quentin, appealing his conviction and sentence.
It is interesting that separate juries found that Holt and Curl pulled the trigger of the same gun that killed Urban.
More interesting is one of the questions posed to Holt by Commissioner Garner: “OK, did you get tried jointly with the shooter?” Holt responded: “No, he got tried five years later.”
I find this exchange interesting because the way this question is framed, Holt was not the shooter.
To be clear, when I talked to Holt, he accepts full responsibility for Urban’s murder. However, since he has not admitted that he was the shooter, the board does not believe his version of the events leading to Urban’s murder. They think he is minimizing his role in the murder and therefore lacks insight.
“What do I say? They tell me to tell the truth,” Holt said. “All I want to do is be transparent with the parole board, and I often feel like I will spend the rest of my life in prison because I will not admit that I pulled the trigger. But if I did that, then I will be lying.”
This is a perfect example of a needed change in parole hearing outcomes. If a prisoner insists that the crime did not happen the way the trial transcripts read, he should not be required to lie and say it did happen that way.
Today, looking back as he tries to explain how irresponsible he used to be, Holt says, “It now makes me feel different in a way that I know I couldn’t go back. Some might think because I’m in prison that I lost my mind, but the fact is that in prison one can choose to live the same lifestyle, but I chose not to.”
He makes no excuses for who he was before coming to prison.
Born Nov. 11, 1959, in Fresno, Holt is one of four children of hard-working parents. Holt said he began using drugs at age 14 to rebel against a very strict and sometimes violent father, who worked 40 years as a carpenter before dying of brain cancer in August 1982.
“As a young man I lived as an outlaw and developed a lifestyle which included being a drug dealer,” Holt said. “I looked up to others in the underworld. These were my role models, and I was always ready to please them.”
Holt said the negative environment he grew up in was grounded in a motorcycle gang mentality. “The culture of drugs made me a slave to methamphetamine. It was all around me as a child; I knew no better.”
In 1979, he married Jeannie Cooper and had two daughters. However, their marriage ended in 1983. Today, he has five grandchildren.
“It became too difficult to pull away from
the drugs, the money, and all the criminal drama that goes with it”
In spite of the negative environment, Holt said in 1980, he earned a GED and completed a four-year apprenticeship carpenter program, eventually becoming a journeyman carpenter with a local union.
However, he still was in the drug life.
“Since I had no criminal history as a juvenile, and in an effort to save myself from drugs and self-destruction, I joined the Marine Corps at the age of 17 to serve my country,” Holt said. “I achieved rank of lance corporal, but I couldn’t leave that methamphetamine alone.”
Holt said that he didn’t understand the dynamics of the drug life until he was in too deep and over his head.
“It became too difficult to pull away from the drugs, the money, and all the criminal drama that goes with it,” he said. “It turned out to be nothing but a big whirlwind of destruction for a young man with no real sense of direction.”
He told me that all he wants to do now is help others not to become the product of a destructive culture.
“It has taken me years to unravel my life and to get a grip on my wrongs,” Holt said. “I’ve done more since arriving at San Quentin than what I’ve done in 28 years of being incarcerated,” referring to completing a vocational trade, and certification programs for building maintenance.
He said he regularly attends Narcotics Anonymous, SQUIRES, Kid CAT, the Richmond Project and Restorative Justice meetings. He has also completed non-violent communications, Hope for Strikers, Anger Management, a domestic violence course, Teaching Responsibility Utilizing Sociological Teaching and House of Healing.
Holt’s sobriety dates back to 1996. He says, “I struggled when I first came to prison because all I wanted to do was fit in. That’s the way it has been throughout my life.”
Today, Holt said that all of the programs have made him realize that he’s carried a lot of resentment, shame, guilt and a poor opinion of himself. He said those feelings stem from a poor relationship with his father.
“I have a loving but distant relationship with my children,” he said. “I have five beautiful grandchildren and used to get visits with them when my mother was alive to bring them to me.” His mother labored for years in a planing mill. She died in February 2014.