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None of Anthony Kline’s colleagues had ever seen this happen. Kline, the most senior judge in the California First District Court of Appeals, was 83 years old, seeking transfer to juvenile court. But after forty years on appeal, Kline felt alienated from real life. He wanted to spend a year in reformatory before retiring.
District One was in a stone-arched Beaux-Arts building surrounded by lanterns, next to San Francisco City Hall. The juvenile court occupied a ruined 1950s building on Woodside Avenue next to a gas station, on a desolate hilltop. Kline’s new courtroom was on the ground floor and featured wood laminate walls, massive silver air conditioners, and mismatched office chairs. Forty years ago, in 1981, he spent a year presiding over the same courtroom, one of his first judicial assignments.
Before returning to Woodside, Kline was given a one-week training course designed for juvenile first-time judges. In a way, it was. In the intervening years, Juvie had softened. In the 1980s, juvenile judges tended to detain minors, but today, as the trainer explains, juvenile judges try to refer defendants to drug treatment, mental health counseling, or family therapy. A progressive throughout his career, Kline thought the changes were a tremendous improvement.
The cases in Kline’s file were similar to those he had encountered 40 years ago. Foster children accused of stealing cars. 8th graders were caught with a knife at school. A 15-year-old boy from the Potrero Hill projects somehow got hold of a high-capacity weapon. If Kline was looking for real life, she found it. The courtroom downstairs on Woodside Street was as far as you could get from the abstract world of the appellate court.
Within five weeks of his new assignment, Kline learned that the defendant was facing a case in which he was a minor. She was a 58-year-old woman. When Kline sought an explanation, she learned that California had recently passed a bill that would help reduce the state’s prison population through rancor. Now, a prisoner serving an excessively long sentence for a crime committed as a minor can return to juvenile court and have the case reassessed once, by a juvenile judge. The defendant who came to Kline had served 41 years for a crime he committed at the age of 17. She was Jamesetta Guy, she.
Kline noticed this. In 1981, during her year in juvenile court, she presided over the trial of a 15-year-old girl named Sharon Wright, who was involved in a failed robbery attempt in which a taxi driver was shot dead. There was another girl in the taxi with Wright: Jamesetta Guy. Kline sentenced Wright to eight years in juvenile custody, but never learned what happened to Guy. Now he had the answer. Forty one years. A surprising term, especially for someone convicted of being a minor. Some adults with the same convictions could have been on parole 20 years ago. Kline saw that what led to this sentence was almost anything that could go wrong for a young defendant. He had no criminal history; the gun was not his; She grew up in a violent household. The evidence did not show premeditated murder. Yet in 1981 a judge declared him “unfit” to stand trial as a child and traced him to the adult system. When his name appeared on Kline’s calendar in 2022, Guy had been in prison as long as he was a judge.
Guy’s ordeal seemed to confirm all of Kline’s theories about the California judicial system. Its heroes were men like Brandeis and Marshall, the liberal lions of the 20th century. He kept up with The New York Review of Books. The Black Lives Matter poster was hung in the window of his Victorian home in the Lower Pacific Hills. In 2019, Kline wrote his opinion in the District One case, where he sued the parole board for refusing to release a prisoner serving a life sentence for a crime committed as a child. Failing to put “huge weight” on “the diminishing guilt of youth,” Kline wrote, the board violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Kline realized that the parole board had denied Guy’s release in 2015, which gave him stern validation. And the fact that a judge has followed it to the adult system confirms his emerging view that teenagers belong in entertainment wherever possible.
A few days before Guy’s new trial, a public defender named Emily Goldman broke into Kline’s room to catch up. The public defender had offices in the same building as the courtrooms, so Goldman was a familiar presence. She settled into a chair in front of Kline’s desk. She said her colleagues were working on Guy’s case at the main office downtown. While reviewing the file, they found the name of the judge who referred Guy from juvenile court to adult court. It was Kline.
He tried to make sense of this surprising news. At the start of his career, he had closed the first link in the chain that sent a 17-year-old boy away for 40 years. It went against everything he believed in, but he did it. He couldn’t remember the details. The trial would have lasted for an hour on a busy morning at the beginning of a long and rich career involving hundreds and hundreds, possibly more than a thousand, cases. As for the transcript, Goldman didn’t. Kline thought Guy might have been sealed because he was a minor. It could have been lost. California courts were not required to retain files in every ordinary case where all appeals were exhausted, as Guy did in 1986.
At 9 a.m. on the designated Monday, Guy entered the downstairs courtroom and took his seat at the table. Kline climbed the steps leading up to the queue. The last time they saw each other in the same courtroom, he was a skinny, baby-faced teenager. He was a young judge – not yet a father, his hair still black. Forty years had left their mark, adding pounds to their midst, mottling Guy’s eyebrows with gray flecks. Kline’s blue eyes under her bushy white eyebrows looked at Guy through her red-rimmed glasses.
“Do you remember me?” said.
Anthony Kline in front of his home in San Francisco. Credit… Katy Grannan for The New York Times
Kline’s first mission It started by chance at Woodside—the sudden illness of another judge left an empty seat on the bench. Because no one would volunteer to go to reformatory, tradition decreed that the task would fall to the youngest judge in the San Francisco County Supreme Court. Kline was 42 years old. In the winter of 1981 his bosses sent him up the hill.
That March, a murder shook the city. Police found a taxi called Luxor Car 174 parked at the corner of Eddy and Scott Streets near a housing project in Western Addition. The engine was running and the headlights were on. The driver was sitting unconscious in the front seat, his head leaning against the door. He had been beaten and shot with a pistol. He still had his wallet, containing $25 and several credit cards. Across the street, a printer from The San Francisco Chronicle was watching TV in her aunt’s apartment. He later told the police that he was looking out the window when the gun went off; Apparently two Black women ran across the taxi. According to the witness, one said to the other, “Hurry!”
The taxi driver died due to his injuries. It was later revealed that his name was Albert Hohl; He was 57 years old and divorced, had two sons. He lived in an apartment below his mother’s house in Castro. He spent his free time hunting, fishing or painting wildlife. Meek, almost passive, “too soft,” his colleagues recalled. On the day of his funeral, a 40-person companion followed the hearse.
Murder news made the nightly news and appeared in The Chronicle and The Examiner, a retelling of a then-familiar, horror story. In 1981 San Francisco had a high level of anxiety about violent crime. After rising in the 1960s and 70s, gun attacks and robberies reached their peak. Detectives recorded more than 100 murders per year. In 1978, as no one will forget, Mayor George Moscone and Inspector Harvey Milk were shot inside City Hall by an aggrieved former mayor named Dan White. When the city’s progressive district attorney failed to secure a long sentence against White, who had only served five years in prison, he lost his reelection bid to his tougher successor, Arlo Smith. A starchy young politician named Dianne Feinstein replaces Moscone as mayor and promises to make things right. It boasted of waging an “all-out war against lawlessness”, increasing police patrols in high-crime areas like the Western Addition, and promising tougher punishments for children as well as adults.
Feinstein’s office has set a $5,000 reward for information regarding Hohl’s (pronounced “Hall”) death. After learning of the award, a 19-year-old woman stepped forward and said that Jamesetta Guy said she and a friend had killed a taxi driver and taken his watch. Eventually, the detectives pieced together a story: Jamesetta Guy and Sharon Wright, two girls from Fillmore, who were part of the Western Addition, were given a loaded pistol by a criminal named Carl Wilson on the morning of the murder. Wilson wanted Guy to keep it because he was on probation, and the presence of the motorcycle police in Fillmore that day made him angry. The girls appeared to have shot Hohl while trying to steal his gold watch, but the watch was never recovered.
Cases were sent to Woodside, where they would reach Kline within a few months of his tenure. Kline’s task with each girl was different. Wright, 15, would automatically be prosecuted as a juvenile; Kline had nothing to do with her case until the parties prepared for the hearing. But Guy fell on a fault line in the juvenile legal system: 16- or 17-year-old defendants were deemed “unfit” for juvenile court, and his lawyers had to convince a judge otherwise.
Kline had never held a “fitness trial” before. Forty years later, he couldn’t remember the details of it. But it wasn’t hard to imagine. Guy and Wright looked like irresponsible teenagers from a bad neighborhood who had picked up a gun and had done something terrible. If Guy stayed in reformatory, he would likely be incarcerated for eight years at the California Youth Department in Central Valley. If he went to adult court, the maximum sentence was probably around 13 years; A sentence of 15 years in prison with parole after 11 is possible. Kline declared herself ineligible for juvenile court and moved on.
Wright’s case was next. There was something tragically naive about the story. The gun had been given to the girls with an empty magazine, so it might look like it wasn’t loaded. But the chamber contained a single bullet. The night he was shot, the girls tried to rob a Taiwanese grocery store in Fillmore – Wright had the gun at the time – and the grocer and his wife yelled at them, scaring them; the gun was so small that the grocer’s first impression was “it looked like a toy”. He didn’t even call the police. After that, the girls went to play table football and buy ice cream. They planned to buy some weed before going home. But then, in the back of a dark cab, Hohl’s attempts to retrieve his watch lead to a fight that leaves him for dead. It was the most serious crime you could commit, but in Kline’s memory, the girls weren’t hardened criminals. They didn’t even have records. Kline decided to sentence Wright to eight years in prison with the California Youth Association, which meant he would be released on his 23rd birthday. Since Kline wasn’t presiding over Guy’s case in adult court, he had little reason to pay attention.
In the spring of 1982, The San Francisco Examiner reported that Guy had been convicted. It wasn’t 15 years that Kline had expected, but 27 years of life. The paper included another odd detail: At the start of the trial, the district attorney seemed to have offered—and later canceled—a plea bargain in open court.
That same year, Kline was summoned from Woodside when a vacancy opened up on the appeals bench. The affair of two girls with pistols fell into the past under a thicket of briefings, opinions, and resolutions. For the next 40 years, he hardly thought of them again.
a fate thing Regarding the Jamesetta Guy case, back at Kline, his story seemed very closely related to the problems Jamesetta had spent her career working on. Kline thought that probably no other judge in California was more familiar with arbitrary sentences and the flaws in the parole process than he was. So it felt good to read Guy’s file at first, because it reinforced the need for reforms he long believed in, especially when it comes to parole boards’ abuse of power. The original fitness hearing had a troubling issue, but ultimately, in light of his decades in law, Guy felt he had a clear understanding of his journey.
Kline was born on Long Island to Jewish parents. Photographs of the concentration camps published by Life magazine when he was 6-7 years old awakened his political consciousness. As he grew older, he came to believe that fighting for those on the border was something of a duty.
Yale Law School accepted him in 1962. In the same dorm was a strong young man from a powerful California family whose ancestors were gold diggers and whose father was the state governor. His name is Edmund G. Brown, Jr. was; everyone called him Jerry. Kline and Brown became friends and ended up together in San Francisco shortly after graduation. The two served as clerks for the California Supreme Court from their rental home in Berkeley, after which Brown began his political career.
Kline found her way into civil rights law. He got a big win in 1975. In a case that went to the California Supreme Court, a man named Rudolfo Rodriguez, who was functionally illiterate and had an IQ below 70, was sentenced to “one year to life” for engaging in immoral behavior with a minor. Rodriguez stayed out of trouble in prison, but was repeatedly denied parole over the course of 22 years. As part of the prisoner’s legal team, Kline argued that if parole boards refused release regardless, the resulting sentences violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual sentencing. The court agreed. Theoretically, the case known as In Re: Rodriguez represented a major new control over the power of parole brokers in California. As soon as the verdict was signed, the guards released Rodriguez from San Quentin. (Rodriguez re-offended the following year and went back to prison. “We’re talking about a constitutional right,” Kline told me when I asked him about it. “You can’t let the risk of someone committing another offence override a constitutional right.”)
Jerry Brown won the Governor’s Mansion the same year as the Rodriguez case. He chose his former Yale dormmate for his legal affairs secretary, a post with the mandate to review judges and shape criminal justice policy. Brown knew exactly what he wanted Kline to work on. In the 1970s, many liberal reformers focused on criminal inequalities as a central flaw in the criminal justice system: Two people who committed the same crime could be sentenced to very different conditions, often influenced by factors beyond their control, such as race. poverty or the skill of public defenders.
Like many states, California’s penal code is written to support “indefinite punishment,” meaning judges can make sentences as wide as one year in Rodriguez’s lifetime. A defendant’s fate did not depend on the rules of the game, but rather on the judges and parole commissioners who accidentally took his case off the deck. Kline helped draft a law that would change the state from indefinite punishment to “specific” punishment – in fixed, clear terms, written in black and white, that no one could argue with or tamper with. To give judges some discretion when it comes to the most serious crimes, the law has identified several crimes that remain vague. One is felony murder, Guy’s conviction. Brown signed Senate Bill 42 in 1976.
Then Brown assigned Kline to the bench. His ascent continued. First, there was a fast-paced year at Woodside – one stay. Next, the seat in the California First District Court of Appeals. District One included San Francisco, which seemed to produce the most interesting cases in the state about technology, freedom of speech, guns, marriage, and prison. A great judge needs a great territory, Kline thought. Would anyone have heard of Brandeis, Warren, or Burger if they had been stranded in the Court of Appeals in Des Moines? For someone with the Kline temperament, most happy reading summaries and writing ideas, dating was an intellectual paradise.
In 1999, it ruled that families of victims of mass shooting in San Francisco could sue the manufacturer of the killer’s semi-automatic pistol. In 2006, he dissented from District One’s decision to uphold California’s ban on same-sex marriage. The most comprehensive was the 2018 verdict in the case known as In Re: Humphrey. Kenneth Humphrey, a former porter, followed an old man home and stole $7 in cash and a bottle of cologne. The judge set his bail at $350,000. Humphrey was unable to put the bond together. He challenged the bail decision on Eighth Amendment grounds, and the case escalated into the court system all the way to Kline. (Humphrey was represented by a rising star civil rights attorney named Chesa Boudin.) Kline, who wrote the unanimous decision, not only ruled in Humphrey’s favor, but at once severely restricted the use of cash bail in California: “One defendant only cannot be imprisoned for poverty.” It was the kind of decision a judge dreams of writing, and one that, with the stroke of a pen, changed the social fabric of tens of millions of people.
By the time he was 83 and back at Woodside, Kline could look forward to a good run. Still, everything hadn’t gone according to plan, she. There was one regret. Well, it wasn’t exactly a regret – the intentions were naive – but the realization that his early work with Jerry Brown meant nothing. Less than nothing: It actually made things worse. SB 42, which should have shortened prison sentences, did the opposite. Politicians tasked with setting new mandatory fines for crimes have raised these penalties to levels unheard of. “I didn’t realize that the Legislature would increase penalties every year,” Brown said. Meanwhile, prosecutors were given a gift: a huge menu of crimes with fixed-term sentences that they could use to threaten a defendant into making a plea bargain.
The situation was no better for indefinitely sentenced prisoners. Kline believed that the parole boards would abide by Rodriguez’s decision and release the prisoners when they were ready. Instead, parole commissioners broke the decision with little consequence. Kline realized that no judge in California had the power to punish like the parole board. Kline watched the prison population explode from 1980 to 2010, until California prisons were operating at about 200 percent capacity. In 2011, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the California prison system was unconstitutionally overcrowded. What Kline didn’t know was that ten years later this decision would reunite her with Jamesetta Guy.
Early in the morning On February 4, 2015, Inmate W-17077 entered the parole hearing room at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. The complete rejection of Jamesetta Guy was expected. Ever since she went to prison at 17, she had been addicted to heroin and was written off for endless abuses (fighting, selling drugs, possessing Bic lighters). The plan at this hearing was to discuss his plans to sober, apologize to the victim’s family for the record, and then request another hearing in a year.
The panel began by asking Guy about his childhood. “Maybe until I was 3 or 4 years old I was raised by my parents and then they divorced due to abuse – my father against my mother,” she said. “My mom was 15 when she got pregnant and my dad was 19 so they weren’t very equipped.”
Guy described the shooting as an accidental discharge that occurred while defending Wright against the driver who had a fight with him for his watch. He explained that perhaps childhood trauma contributed to his wrong decision to shoot Hohl with a pistol. “I feel a lot of guilt,” Guy said. “I may not always show it to everyone, but I have to live with it.”
After a short stay in a custody room, he was rescued by a guard. The superintendent explained that due to his disciplinary record and lack of “insight” into his crime, the board is not currently granting parole. This is what Guy had been waiting for so far. Then the commissioner continued. “Ten years would be a good time to appear before the next panel,” he said. Never mind a possible release date: Guy would have been 61 before he could get another trial. After thanking the commissioners for their time, he returned to his cell, where the shower, sink, and toilet were located, as well as the four bunk beds tightly lined up.
A few days later he found Roxanne Perdigone in the stands in the garden. Perdigone and Guy got married in the literal prison sense of the word – no priests ever served, but they had an agreement to love and protect each other. Although Guy knew he was gay during his brief adolescence in the free world, Perdigone had a male fiancee out there, an accountant in Bonita, California, who had emailed him on Meet-an-Inmate.com. This did not negate the prison marriage. In fact, the three of them were friends and visited together. Guy’s parents had died while he was incarcerated; Perdigone was a family now.
For Perdigone, the 10-year postponement seemed like the kind of blow you couldn’t turn back on. Even for the “multiple programmers” who were inmates rushing from “life scripts” class to touch typing and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, the release rate remained low and Guy’s progress was stalling. Not that Perdigone completely blamed him for this. Guy had never been an adult in the free world; All he knew was prison. Still, Perdigone had enough experience in prison life to come to the inevitable conclusion that Guy would never be paroled. Perdigone kept it to herself, but it worried her because Guy must have been thinking about it too. With no hope of release—however remote—many women threw in the towel, used drugs, and quit programming.
So it was surprising that a year after denial, Guy’s prison record began to tell a story that wasn’t free fall. His cell was filled with cheap Microsoft Word frames and certificates, whose arrogantly inspiring messages describing the bizarre milestones by which prison progress was assessed. A “thank you” for the “extraordinary and countless RANDOM FAVORITIES” in 2016. “Thank you for being the change we want to see in the world.” “Jamesetta Guy is proficient in Microsoft Excel 2010.” Soon, Guy received training in “employer expectations”, “employment and job application”, “computer literacy”, “drug prohibition” and “Sister/Little Sister” counseling.
One day in the law library, he was reading a copy of the weekly newsletter that told inmates about changes in California law that could affect their case. He read that there was a change to the felony murder rule, which could reduce the sentence for a person complicit in a robbery-murder. That’s who the law applied to: just an accomplice, not a hitman. He was the shooter. Although pointless, he felt that filling out the application form in the face of outright rejection was a somewhat promising move, so he put the paperwork together without ticking the important box. He sent two copies, one to the district attorney and one to the public defender. He tried not to think about it. The law library was already a fiction, intended to give some hope to people who could never get out. A few months passed and he forgot about it.
In October 2019, a letter arrived for Chowchilla. “Dear Miss Guy, your case has been referred to me by a paralegal,” he said. “I want to do whatever I can to help you work for your evacuation.” The sender was a San Francisco public attorney named Danielle Harris.
But the help in Harris’ mind had nothing to do with Guy’s application. It had to do with a law passed by the state in 2018 as part of its struggle to comply with the Supreme Court’s 2011 ruling that required California to reduce its prison population from 200 percent to 137 percent of its capacity. This law gave district attorneys the power to “withdraw” a prison sentence that was not “in the interest of justice”. In other words, if a person has served too long, they can be sent back to court for a new trial, while Harris’ office can represent them. The court should be the same type of court in which a defendant is sentenced: if a person was convicted as a child, he goes back to the juvenile judge, even if he is now much older.
A month after Harris sent Guy his letter, there was a change of guard in San Francisco law enforcement that would help pave the way for cases like Guy’s. Chesa Boudin was elected district attorney on a progressive platform. As soon as he took office, he formed a “post-conviction unit” whose primary mission was to pursue wrongful convictions and find long-term prisoners who could be released without posing a danger to the public. Under the supervision of Boudin’s chief of staff, Deputy District Attorney Kate Chatfield, named Dana Drusinsky, began examining the prison files. An offended 17-year-old 58-year-old woman seemed like a good candidate. They mentioned his name to Harris’ office. Harris, of course, knew exactly who they were talking about.
Harris warmly and decisively handed the Guy file over to Andrea Lindsay, a public defender. Lindsay’s job was to take the recording of Guy and turn it into a narrative. When it came to crime, it was not the public defender’s job to ask the details of why and how. At this point Guy had done so much that it no longer mattered. Lindsay thought that what might be important to a judge were some strange features she had begun to write in the motion of the case. The defense agreement was withdrawn. That was weird enough. But it all stemmed from another, more fundamental mystery: the original fitness trial. Lindsay could see that Kline was the judge, but the record was nowhere to be found—she didn’t even know if there was one. Leaving the unknown out, he made the case for release: Guy was too young, he was no longer dangerous, and keeping him in jail was not in the interests of justice.
The next step was for Chatfield’s team to inform Albert Hohl’s family that the case of the woman who killed him was about to be reopened. Hohl’s relatives disapproved. One wrote in a letter, “I don’t think it was right that Albert was released to live a normal life when he was brutally murdered.” But now the wheels were turning. The case was to be handed over to a judge in Woodside to anyone with a place on the calendar.
In April 2021, Guy was taken from Chowchilla to San Francisco. A guard placed him in a detention cell in Woodside. Her siblings were gathered outside the courtroom: her sister Rosetta, a desk clerk at a one-room hotel in Mission, and her brother Marty, a Public Works Department employee. A middle-aged white man walked in alone, unknown to anyone – Perdigone’s fiancee Daniel.
Kline was getting ready in her room. Ever since the case returned to his jurisdiction, he had been grappling with how to deal with it. He knew that some judges might back off in such a situation: since Kline was “the one who sent him to prison,” he thought it would be an assumption that he would feel biased in his favor in his previous decision. However, Kline thought that according to the law, he could approach the matter from the middle. Law demanded that he decide as if he were seeing the case for the first time. In fact, she thought, she was making her present self the child judge that Guy had initially prevented her from seeing.
Lindsay’s proposal created an interesting read. Kline was not one of those people who, like Boudin, believed in a wholesale overhaul of the criminal justice system. He considered American courts to be among the fairest in the world. He considered the California courts to be among the fairest courts in the United States. He thought Guy deserved to go to jail, period. But when everything came together, the story took on a scandalous dimension.
When Guy left Woodside in 1981, he was taken to adult court, where the prosecutor offered him a settlement. If he pleaded guilty to murder, he would send him to the California Youth Association for an eight-year term, the same sentence as Wright. Since there was no legal distinction between hitman and accomplice in felony murder in the 1980s, this wouldn’t have been an easy way to let Guy go, it would have been more of a bookish treatment for a boy. The claim probably made sense for a second reason – the problem of persistent motivation. As Kline knew from the Wright case, the girls didn’t go looking for a gun that night to commit murder. They had been given a pistol by an adult. While that didn’t make Hohl’s murder any less serious, it seemed to put the whole event in a different light—more thoughtless, less brutal. Cruel, stupid and pointless, not premeditated.
Whatever the objection was made, Guy had agreed. It was later withdrawn, for equally obscure reasons. The case went to court. Twenty-seven years to life. After Guy’s appeal failed, the file contained nothing but thirty-five years in prison and then a 10-year suspension at his parole hearing—Kline knew it was a harsh and unconventional sanction.
To decide the case, Kline had to engage in a legal fiction: What would the current law do if Guy had appeared before him now as a teenager? A 17-year-old today accused of murder would probably not be sent to adult prison, but would be kept in the juvenile system. Still, he had to think about society. If Guy was a danger, that would be a reason to keep him locked up. As he knows from his career in appeals, the strongest indicator of whether someone has committed a crime is age. A reasonable judge would likely conclude that Guy, now 58, “aged” from crime. He couldn’t see a good reason not to release her.
But he had a second decision to make, a kind of moral puzzle with no obvious solution. It was whether or not to legally erase Guy’s murder conviction from his records. Due to the time-lapse nature of the trials, Kline had the power to legally go back to 1981 and dismiss the original charges, which would have the effect of nullifying the conviction today. Already opposed to Guy’s release, Albert Hohl’s family would certainly oppose a result in which no one was convicted for pulling the trigger. Guy’s lawyers, on the other hand, argued that his murder conviction could make it harder to find a job and adjust to life outside. Kline would wait until a later date to decide on this second question.
He left his room and climbed the steps to the bank. Before she saw Guy, she had wondered if he, like many defendants, would be angry. But the woman in front of him seemed calm, somewhat peaceful. Kline turned her attention to the court. “This is a very unusual trial for me,” he began, “because, as you know, I am the judge who ordered the trial of Jamesetta as an adult. I find it embarrassing.” Guy’s lawyer asked Andrea Lindsay if he was familiar with the recordings of the original eligibility hearing, which he said was not.
“I have a very strong memory of the other minor’s case,” Kline said, but she couldn’t remember what had caused Guy to decide he wasn’t fit for juvenile court. The injustices caused by my decision are the reason for my embarrassment,” he said. As if to record these injustices, he scolded those parts of the system that, in his view, ruined the case. “This did not reflect very well on the Parole Hearings Board. The behavior of the previous district attorney also does not reflect well the criminal justice system. In my opinion, it could reasonably be argued that Jamesetta Guy received a disproportionate penalty for violating the Eighth Amendment.
The court reporter ran his hands over his keyboard, his monitor based on a volume of California penal code. Guy looked at her from the table Kline last sat at, 41 years ago.
“Your proposal accepted,” said Kline.
Guy was free.
Three week later Guy’s been released, I called to ask if we could meet. The woman who opened the door to the beige two-story house in Oakland was six feet tall, warm and comfortable, wearing a black 49ers cap, a loose T-shirt, and sweatpants. The House was run by a non-profit organization that supported people who were previously incarcerated; Guy could stay there for up to two years until he found something permanent.
“Do you want coffee?” said. He went to the bedroom and came back with two needles, metal heating rods with rubber handles, sold in prison canteens. He plugged them in and dipped them into mugs filled with water and Folgers ladles. On the counter next to her was a new-looking coffee machine. He had never learned how to use it.
Over the next few months, we got into a routine. I’d come from Los Angeles, meet him at his beige house, and take him on one of the endless assignments and appointments that come with getting out of prison. A nonprofit called Roots to help with long-term housing. Department of Motor Vehicles for a brochure on permit testing. The basement of the Jarlath Catholic Church, where provisional votes are held in the summer primary elections. When there was nothing specific to do, we would go out to dinner or just hang around.
I commended myself for being such a great listener that he acknowledged my presence, but still, he didn’t know many people in Oakland—even beyond the bay. He grew up in a San Francisco that no longer exists. In the 1950s and ’60s, Fillmore had become one of the centers of Black life and culture west of the Mississippi. When Guy was born, the neighborhood had been nearly razed in the name of urban renewal and rebuilt as a housing estate. When he got out of prison, he became unrecognizable. There were only banks and restaurants on the street where his father prayed in a mosque in a shop. “Some people who’ve been in there as long as I have,” Guy said, “offend again just to get in.”
After knowing him for a few months, I said that I really wanted to understand the moment of the shooting, because I needed to have a feel for it for my article. We were sitting in her living room with her sister Rosetta. “I was hitting him,” Guy said. The autopsy shows I hit him a few times. But after that all I remember is silence. I was absent for a moment. And I remember not the gun going off, but the sirens going off in the distance.”
“Are you worried that if you tell me what you remember, I won’t like you as much as I used to?” I asked.
“I would have told you,” he said.
One version of this interaction has been swirling around Guy since he was arrested. His lawyer told Harriet Ross that he could not remember the exact moment the gun was shot. She claimed she had a “fainting”. She hadn’t thought of firing the gun. It went “accidentally”. It could be a lie, a truth, or a way of living with the truth.
Legally speaking, none of this mattered. At the time of Guy’s arrest, under California’s felony homicide rule, if a prosecutor could prove that a murder was committed during the commission of certain crimes, such as robbery, the conviction was first-degree murder, the end of the story. Guy’s intentions became irrelevant as soon as the jurors concluded that Hohl’s watch had been stolen. (Ross argued that the state had failed to prove the robbery beyond a reasonable doubt; the watch, like the gun, was never found.) Despite much debate over the fairness of the homicide rule, the debate is in part tied to its failure. To distinguish accidents from assassinations, Guy was convicted of felony murder.
One annoying thing about the Hohl crime scene is that it can be used to tell two very different stories. The bullet entered Hohl’s back at a 45-degree angle, under his right shoulder blade, through the lungs and aorta: Hohl may have been shot in the rear driver’s seat as his body bent over the center splitter like Ross. He may have been shot from the rear passenger seat, as the prosecution claimed, or while he was slumped over the steering wheel – in the position he was ultimately in. The first version supported Guy’s story about a robbery gone horribly wrong; The second version supported the more brutal interpretation that Hohl was shot after he was already incapacitated by the blows to the head.
In 2015, Guy expanded on the parole board’s blackout story. While she still insists on not remembering the moment she was shot, she suggested one possible reason she might have gone “crazy” and started hitting him: She said she was traumatized as a child when her father beat her mother. As Guy later explained to me, he gathered this insight from prison support groups and anger management classes. This is how the system taught him to make sense of and narrate his own experience. But when he proposed to the commissioners, they accused him of changing his story and therefore lacking “insight” and gave him a 10-year reprieve.
As I got to know Guy better, I found myself with a predictable feeling: I wanted the shooting to be an accident. The person who knew the gunshot facts best was Harriet Ross, who sounded quite the character: the rare public defender who voted Republican and tucked a Wall Street Journal under her navy jacket sleeve. Ross would be 97; Most of my sources were sure that he was dead. But when I called, there was a bright and peppery voice. “Funny,” she said. I was thinking of Jamesetta the other day. Ross lived independently in a Nob Hill apartment and remembered the trial perfectly. She believed that the jury had convicted Jamesetta because they thought she had not expressed enough “suffering” when she testified. “She wasn’t in tears on the witness stand, and I didn’t encourage wearing a fake face,” Ross said. “I don’t know what they expect from a young girl.” When I asked Guy’s insistence on the accidental firing of the gun, Ross’ tone was stern and clear. “I know he didn’t pull the trigger. I’m sure he didn’t. He wasn’t that kind of person.
At the trial, Ross took a firearms expert to the stand, who said RG .25, an unreliable Saturday night special known for having “very low quality” safety, may have exploded upon impact with a surface such as Hohl’s body. or car seat. He stated that he saw this model being accidentally dropped and discharged. But the physics were difficult to match on the scene, as the gun had to hit something at the same time and fire at Hohl’s back at a certain angle. (A bullet is “pointed in the direction in which the firearm is pointed,” said the prosecutor dryly.) The coroner stated that he saw the RG .25 accidentally discharged with damage to the part holding the barrel. hammer in place. This was not good either. As far as everyone knows, the RG .25 that Guy used was undamaged. According to the testimony of Carl Wilson, who gave the gun to Guy and Wright, a part of the RG, that is, the magazine that went inside the magazine, was damaged.
While searching for more information on the RG .25, I came across a 1973 article from the Firearms and Vehicle Marking Review Association Journal, in which a ballistics expert in Illinois reported a strange anomaly: an RG .25 semi-auto that exploded when the magazine opened. was moved “a slight distance”, “to the surprise of this inspector whose finger was not close to the trigger at the time.” This was an accidental shot on the same area of the gun, on the same gun model from the same time period. I wondered if the gun had gone off in Guy’s hand, even if his finger wasn’t close to the trigger?
Yet, somewhere in the middle of this research, looking at a photo of a disassembled RG .25 neatly spread over my desk, I had to stop and ask myself what I was really doing. Guy was not claiming a false conviction. Whenever the subject came up, he would say, “I took the life of an innocent man.” My article had nothing to do with retrying the original case. Why did I care so much if the gun was fired accidentally?
Guy’s situation raised a question that I realized I had little practice in confrontation with. Despite the prevalence of false conviction stories and stories about nonviolent drug offenders serving ridiculous terms, most inmates in the United States are actually in prison for violent crimes they have committed. How much punishment was justified in response to violence? Even assuming the worst version of the story, Guy shot Hohl in the back for an hour – then what to do? If the crime had been committed today, eight years of juvenile detention would have been the most severe punishment. Guy had been given a whole life inside Chowchilla.
In an elusive moment, Guy went from being the perpetrator of what he described as a “terrible act” to, in addition, the recipient of a mind-bending punishment. To give myself an idea of the enormity of Guy’s incarceration, I thought of it in terms of my time on Earth: Everything that has ever happened to me, my 35 years of events and relationships from childhood to adulthood are still uneven. until he spent time in a cage with four to eight women and without privacy even when using the toilet. Asking whether this reaction was proportionate, or whether the display of remorse demanded by the parole board made any sense, in no way diminished the seriousness of a man’s death. I let myself ignore these more difficult questions for a while, focusing on whether the RG pistol was accidentally fired. In essence, these were the questions that confronted Kline.
i was introduced Between her two decisions to Kline about the Guy case, first her release and then her conviction. I didn’t know what to expect. Judges hardly ever talk to journalists. However, Kline said that his upcoming retirement gives him the authority to speak his mind. “You will hear from me some things you would rarely hear from a judge,” he promised in our first conversation.
The atmosphere in Kline’s home was liberally opulent: a bright kitchen with windows overlooking a lemon-tree garden, George Packer’s latest opus of social regression bookmarks on the marble counter. When I visited in early May, I found Charles Breyer, brother of Stephen, a federal judge and retired Supreme Court justice, leaning against that bench in bike clips, stopping by for a chat on his way to work.
During our first three-hour conversation, Kline painted a picture of her younger self as a bona fide player in a compromised system. “In 1981,” he said, “you never asked yourself why. You didn’t think it was your responsibility to ask: Where did this violence come from? Why was this happening? And it was certainly not seen as our responsibility to treat it or punish the child in such a way as to cure it.” The conversation went so well that we developed an intimacy on the phone when Kline would call me to discuss her career or share some thoughts on juvenile justice or the California parole system.
In early June, he made his decision regarding Guy’s conviction. Hohl’s homage to his family demanded that he continue, and he put a hearing on the calendar to make it official. Kline still did not know what had happened at the trial in 1981. The seriousness of the crime must have convinced him, she thought. “I mean, he shot a taxi driver in the head,” he said. But that couldn’t be the real explanation because the bullet went into Hohl’s back. The idea of a headshot—an execution—was a mistake the newspapers reported in 1981 (or was a lie), but that’s how everyone seemed to remember it to this day. In a letter to Hohl’s relative against Guy’s release, he described him as “left to put a bullet in the head to death”. In any event, Kline set the trial date for June 14 to confirm the conviction.
On June 7, I took the train from Oakland to Sacramento to visit the California State Archives. An investigator had found the file that Guy said was the file on his failed appeal in 1985. I sat in a quiet carpeted room with bronze reading lamps bent over tables, and the archivist showed me what I had come to see: a pile of books About 2 feet high, 1,500 pages of paper divided into three packages, held between cracked cardboard covers, tied with white canvas strings. I found a thin file with a clear plastic cover crammed into one of three folders. The front page was dated March 25, 1981. It was a transcript of the original eligibility hearing. I emailed a copy to Kline and asked if we could meet.
When I got to his house two days later, he had printed out the document and marked it with a thick pencil. “I found it fascinating,” she said.
legal presumption today In California, a child must be tried in juvenile court. In 1981, however, the situation was not clearer: a 16- or 17-year-old accused of a serious crime was deemed ineligible for juvenile court, and the defense had to persuade the judge otherwise. The law told the judge exactly what criteria to use: previous criminal record, success of past rehabilitation attempts, probability of successful rehabilitation, seriousness of the offense, and “complexity of the offence”. The first three criteria were irrelevant, as Guy had no records. That left gravity and complexity.
Prosecutor James Lassart pointed to Guy’s street smarts to prove he was tactful at the fitness hearing. He used the word ‘coke’ instead of cocaine,” he said. He knew about “freedom”. He had “a source” for marijuana. “He could manipulate people.” Kline was ambivalent about these arguments, which seemed to prove she was only 17, but eventually accepted them. An even bigger shock came when Kline read Lassart’s argument about “gravity.” A murder is certainly grave, but juvenile courts, like all courts, recognize degrees. Voluntary manslaughter, in which you unintentionally kill someone, can easily be taken to juvenile court, while willful manslaughter would apply to adults. Lassart explained that Guy’s case was a premeditated murder for one obvious reason. “Obviously a gun must have been supplied,” he told Kline. Kline accepted the claim and ruled against Guy.
When Kline read this sentence in 2022, it soon brought it up. Is it “bought”? The gun was given to the girls. He knew this from the Wright case. But until he read the eligibility breakdown, he had forgotten how much of his initial decision was based on this mistake. The word “obviously” should have been a gift: It smelled of inference.
Then, at the very end of the eligibility hearing, Kline noticed an important statement from Lassart. Lassart said Guy would serve “six years” if kept in juvenile court. If he went to adulthood, he would serve eight. “That’s the difference we’re really discussing,” he said. Two years. (Lassart, who still practices in San Francisco, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
The only way a defendant could get eight years in prison for murder in an adult courtroom in San Francisco in 1981 was through a plea bargain — and a plea bargain turned out to be exactly what Lassart had in mind. After Guy left Kline’s courtroom, Lassart offered him a deal. If he pleaded guilty, he would have one last chance to go to the California Department of Youth, provided he cleared one hurdle: Three psychological evaluations would be made, and everyone would have to recommend that he be treated like a child. Guy agreed with the reviews. But when he went to court to hear the results and accept the settlement, Lassart was nowhere to be found. Instead, there was Assistant District Attorney Eugene Sweeters, who announced to the judge that he was withdrawing his plea offer. The judge looked incredulous. “That would be an abuse of my discretion,” he said. But Sweeters did get a report from a probation officer saying Guy “has no regrets”. He insisted that the evidence was unclear and should be heard. The judge gave permission and Guy went to court.
In 1985, Guy appealed to District One on the grounds that the withdrawn plea deal was illegal. (In 1971, the Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional to withdraw a plea deal made by “promise or agreement of the prosecutor.” Prosecutors defending the appeal argued that the plea deal was a possibility, not a definitive plan. It was taken innocently, not with any malicious intent. But if Lassart had kept the deal in mind from the start, the cancellation could only have been deliberate. When I spoke with Alex Reisman, a former trial attorney who served in San Francisco in the 1980s, he explained that no plea deal would be made or withdrawn without consulting the district attorney. “This used to come from Arlo Smith,” he told me—the man chosen to harden up after the Moscone and Milk assassinations.
The great liberal dream of the post-WWII era was that the justice system, as a force, could control the passions of the individual for the good of the whole society. This was Kline’s project of interpreting the law like a machine that could be adjusted to work fairly. But now he was faced with a transcript that showed the law as it was: a battlefield of conflicting motivations, political pressures, feuds and deception. Decisions taken within an hour changed the course of life. Kline set out to minimize the impact of fallible and gullible people, but here was a case where fallible human actors were in their own courtroom.
At first, Kline believed the case was properly settled in 1981 and the law has simply been corrected since then. Now, it seemed like a more complex story. “There’s no way I or any other reasonable judge can do what I’m doing under the law today,” Kline said in his kitchen. “But I don’t believe I have to do it based on the 1981 law.” Kline rested her cheek on her hand and looked at the ground. “This is pretty serious. It’s not something I give up easily.”
When the next trial came, that’s exactly what Kline did was walk away from him. On June 14, he announced that he was keeping his conviction in the notebooks. Over the next few days, the usual relaxed atmosphere of our conversations became more confrontational. “This information is important,” he told me. “A journalist testifying to a judge in a case – that’s unusual. This has never happened to me. I’m happy to talk to you about what happened after what happened. But talking about what’s going to happen worries me.”
We were approaching the red line. A judge should not talk about an active case. Our phone conversation was reduced to zero.
hearing on 21 June It appeared on Kline’s calendar. People of the State of California – Jamesetta Guy. There are no details on the subject. I called Andrea Lindsay; he had no idea. Chesa Boudin’s office didn’t know either. When morning came, the children gathered on Woodside Avenue: Jamesetta, Rosetta, and their brother Marty.
The court clerk opened the door and Guy took his place at the table. Kline had notes in front of him and he began to read. He spoke for about an hour. There was a usual scraping on the parole system. But there was also a much more nuanced historical account from him than I’ve ever heard. Since the last time I walked into her kitchen two weeks ago, she seemed to have delved deeply into the matter. Several inquiries had swung more and more documents he had shuffled on his desk.
These were the three psychological assessments from the California Department of Youth: documents that would have kept Guy in the juvenile system if they had reached a unanimous conclusion. In any case, no one used the reports. The assistant district attorney had convinced the judge to ignore them when the plea deal was made. Guy had never seen them. Now Kline put on his red-rimmed glasses and prepared to read aloud so that 58-year-old Guy could hear what the State of California had detected about him when he was 17.
“Jamesetta does not appear to be a calloused or stern young lady,” the initial report said. “Therefore, it should be amenable to treatment.” A second report said: “The problem at hand is Jamesetta’s continued efforts to deny any voluntary intent in the action that led to the driver’s death. This can speak either to the fact that he’s a very conscientious liar, or to the fact that the crime is so heinous to him that he can’t admit it. I tend to accept the second reason. And if that’s the case, that would be reason enough to offer him help at the youth agency.” Another report accepted. The statement said the pattern of dangerous behavior was not “firmly entrenched.” “Jamesetta is still young enough.”
It was 41 years ago. If his transfer to adult court was wrongly ordered, Guy served 33 years longer than the law required. None of this was Kline’s fault. At the same time, it would never have happened had it not been for his initial decision.
The prosecutor objected to the report, saying that the annulment of the conviction was a step too far. Hohl said his family would not approve of this. “This is a legitimate concern,” Kline admitted. “But there’s a competing thought for me.” It was this: “When I presided over Jamesetta Guy’s eligibility hearing, nobody in the courtroom was aware that he hadn’t bought the gun. I agreed because the public defender did not object. And so I think I may have relied on a false truth. Even though I had instructed so, I went to adult court. I don’t believe it should be shipped.”
He announced that he would clear the conviction.
“The second time I saw you, Jamesetta, I said something I’ve never said to an accused before,” he said. “For my embarrassment. Even when I found you ineligible, even if I was right to disapprove, it never occurred to me that you would serve 41 years. And I wish you good luck for the rest of your life. This trial is over.”
As an old man at the end of his career, he got up from the bench and slowly descended the stairs. Guy got up from the table in a 49ers jersey and gold cross necklace. He raised his hand to wave behind Kline. “Thanks Judge!” he called. But she didn’t seem to hear him. He was returning to his room to face what would happen next.
This month, There has been a jolt in San Francisco politics. Chesa Boudin was dismissed as district attorney in a recall election. Funded mainly by a Republican venture capitalist named William Oberndorf, the recall campaign beat Boudin over two scandals. A series of missteps from his office and his parole system promptly led to the release of a violent criminal who committed a deadly hit-and-run. Then, videos of brash robberies at Union Square luxury stores went viral. As a good measure, Boudin has also been blamed for the homelessness crisis. Articles describing the city as “lawless”. These attacks weren’t entirely true: thefts have increased, violent crime has decreased, and solving homelessness is not in a district attorney’s job description. But Boudin was seen as soft and toasty. He lost by 10 points.
In San Francisco, when a district attorney is recalled, he chooses a temporary successor, the mayor. Mayor London Breed chose Brooke Jenkins, a young prosecutor who had served in Boudin’s office until he left to support the recall. Jenkins promised to “start to restore some law and order in San Francisco.” On a break from Boudin, he fired several lawyers working on post-conviction cases, including Kate Chatfield and Dana Drusinsky, and demoted the rest. For 27 Californian inmates serving life sentences in San Francisco for crimes they committed as a child, Guy’s path to the free world was cut off. In September, Jenkins announced that his office would go even further. He would try to try some 16- and 17-year-old defendants in adult court, whose crimes “shake the conscience of society”.
Before long, these political winds shook the gates in Woodside. The decisions Kline made during her return to juvenile court, even for prosecution and defense, had drawn the limit of sending children to the adult system. As lawyers often reminded, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that adolescents are less guilty than adults. Since then, the trend in juvenile law has moved away from punishment and towards rehabilitation.
One day in September, a case involving a 15-year-old boy came to Kline in court. “It was a regular robbery, nothing really unique,” the boy’s public defender told me. But before the proceedings could begin, the Woodside attorney general, a man named David Mitchell, threw a wrench. There is a section of the California Code of Civil Procedure that allows attorneys to “challenge” a judge – throwing the judge out of their case – if they believe the judge is “biased” towards their party. The statute does not require them to prove bias; they just have to make a claim. Mitchell activated section 170.6 and got a new judge for the robbery case. The district attorney’s office has not yet released its reasoning. When I called, a representative declined to comment and instead referred me to their public statement. (Jenkins said Kline’s decisions pose a risk to public safety.)
“They will challenge me,” he told me: challenge him in any situation. The “veiled challenge” is seen in the toolbox of California lawyers as a nuclear option and is rarely resorted to. When I asked lawyers and former judges if they had heard of such an event, they could only recall one instance from the recent past. When Kline was challenged, their case fell to Roger Chan, another judge at Woodside. By no means was he strict—he was the director of a nonprofit juvenile law center—Chan nevertheless proved insightful into the prosecution’s positions. When three minors, whom the probation department had recommended to be released pending trial, came before the district attorney, Chan sided with them and detained them. On November 8, Brooke Jenkins was elected to a full term.
“What are you going to do?” I asked Kline. The end of the Guy case had broken the phone line between us.
“There is nothing I can do,” he said.
The next day, and every business day after that, Kline reported to Woodside and took his place on the bench. He still had the cases he started before his extensive defiance: a 16-year-old boy who got into a car accident while driving a drunk relative home, a 15-year-old who was AWOL from a probation officer. But whenever a new lawsuit is filed, Mitchell charges Kline with “prejudice” and demands a new judge, 170.6. applied for the article. You could see the limits of Kline’s profession and his reputation for obeying the letter of the law. In the lower-floor wood-laminate-walled courtroom, the former judge threw himself into a zero-sum caseload.
Source photo for photo display: Nicole Bengiveno/San Francisco Examiner, via the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
Jesse Barron He is a contributing writer to a crime-focused magazine. Most recently, he wrote about a Hong Kong investor who used a New Jersey deli as a front for financial fraud. Michelle Carter’s article “Girl from Plainville” about the “suicide texting” case was adapted into the Hulu series of the same name, which she produced. Katy Grannan He is a photographer and filmmaker known for his intimate portraits and his focus on the relationship between desire and illusion in his subjects. He has five monographs of his work.