Positive Post-Release Achievements Warranted Certificate of Rehabilitation for Murderer Who Completed His Sentence

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George Dennis Rounds was a model prisoner – the kind who totally turns his life around and becomes a character about whom a Hollywood studio could make an inspirational movie.

After being convicted of second-degree murder of one step-uncle and attempted murder of another following an argument about money they owed him, he served 27 years in prison, then four years on parole. He then got a job, obtained a college degree and began an organization that helps at-risk youth. But that wasn’t enough for the trial judge who denied him a certificate of rehabilitation (COR) that would have allowed him to apply for a pardon from the governor and to tell future employers, creditors, and housing officials that he could now be “counted on to follow the law.”

Seven years after completing his parole and more than 38 years after committing his crimes, Rounds filed for a COR before San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge J. David Mazurek. The judge asked the district attorney to conduct a background investigation, which found Rounds “statutorily eligible for a COR and pardon.” Nonetheless, Mazurek denied his petition, which would allow him to address youths in schools or juvenile detention centers to “encourage them not to make the mistakes he made.”

The defendant then appealed to Division Three of California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal, where a unanimous three-justice panel of Martha K. Gooding, Acting Presiding Justice Eileen C. Moore and Justice Thomas M. Goethals reversed Mazurek’s denial and found that his “abuse of discretion amounts to a miscarriage of justice” and contradicts California Penal Code section 4852.01’s objective to “restore civil and political rights of citizenship to ex-felons who have proved their rehabilitation.”

This section of the Penal Code says that “…a person convicted of a felony may file a petition for a certificate of rehabilitation and pardon pursuant to the provisions of this chapter.” Section 4852.05 adds, “The person shall live an honest and upright life, shall conduct himself or herself with sobriety and industry, shall exhibit a good moral character, and shall conform to and obey the laws of the land.” A COR is not available to persons serving mandatory life parole, those who were committed under death sentences, persons convicted of certain enumerated offenses, and persons in military service.

Justice Gooding, the opinion’s author, explained that the Court would publish its opinion “to clarify the factors the trial court may consider when evaluating a petition for a certificate of rehabilitation and pardon.” She noted that Mazurek “…did not address the relevant statutory factors, and did not so much as mention Rounds’s character and conduct in the nearly 40 years following the crime.”

The appellate opinion evaluated Mazurek’s ruling against the “abuse of discretion standard,” which governs the review. Precedents define an abuse of discretion as “exceed(ing) the bounds of reason” or “being mistaken about the scope of permitted discretion.” Gooding quoted People v. Zeigler (2012) 211 Cal.App.4th 638, 668) which says, “The discretion of a trial judge is not a whimsical, uncontrolled power, but a legal discretion, which is subject to the limitations of legal principles governing the subject of its action, and to reversal on appeal where no reasonable basis for the action is shown.”

She then returned to People v. Zeigler for the standard for obtaining a COR and said that the superior court hearing a petition must find the applicant is “both rehabilitated and fit to exercise the rights and privileges lost by reason of his conviction…The overall goal of the statutory scheme is ‘to restore civil and political rights of citizenship to ex-felons who have proved their rehabilitation.’”

The opinion states that “The hurdles erected by the Legislature to obtain a COR are not intended to be easily surmounted. The trial courts are entrusted with the responsibility, in the exercise of a sound discretion, to ensure that the strict statutory standards for rehabilitation are maintained.” Using these standards, the plaintiff, the Attorney General of California (or the People) did admit that Rounds was “statutorily eligible for a COR.”

His crimes did not make him ineligible and his petition was timely. He committed no crimes or acts of violence after being released from prison. His petition declared he was now living “an honest and upright life,” and exhibited good moral character, as affirmed by many letters of recommendation from organizations such as the Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and the California Assembly among others. Perhaps his most impressive accomplishment was organizing and consulting for DrivenBound LLC, whose mission is to “mentor and empower male youth by providing them with life skills” and examples of adults who overcame obstacles that made them serve time in prison. He’s been married for 12 years and employed by Apple for seven.

With all this positive evidence, Mazurek still denied his petition for a COR because of what he called “the egregious nature of the offenses and defendant’s conflicting explanations as to what occurred particularly regarding his mental state.” But Goodling ruled that “denial of the petition was a manifest abuse of discretion, as it was based almost entirely on factors not properly part of the statutory analysis, amounting to a miscarriage of justice.” She noted that the trial judge “primarily relied on the 2006 conclusion of the parole board that found Round’s offense to be “especially callous.”

However, Goodling explained that “Nothing in the statute or case law permits the trial court to consider the specifics of the crime itself.” Instead, the Penal Code says that the period of rehabilitation begins upon the discharge from custody or the release from parole. The Appellate Court concluded that the denial of Round’s COR was “a manifest abuse of discretion, as it was based almost entirely on factors not part of the statutory analysis, amounting to a miscarriage of justice.”

Maureen Rubin
Maureen Rubin
Maureen is a graduate of Catholic University Law School and holds a Master's degree from USC. She is a licensed attorney in California and was an Emeritus Professor of Journalism at California State University, Northridge specializing in media law and writing. With a background in both the Carter White House and the U.S. Congress, Maureen enriches her scholarly work with an extensive foundation of real-world knowledge.
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