John Rodriguez was born in Mexico and spent most of his life in Louisiana, Texas and California. His criminal history includes several drunk driving offenses and a conviction for dealing heroin.
His first brush with the law occurred in 1929, when he was stopped in Dallas on a traffic violation. After serving in the European theater in World War II, Rodriguez returned to California, where he was arrested in 1951 — at age 38 — on suspicion of robbery.
In 1957, he was arrested in the first of 10 drunk driving offenses. And in 1961, he was convicted of conspiring to possess and sell narcotics and of possessing heroin. He was sentenced to five years to life and was paroled in 1969.
Rodriguez was married four times and fathered nine children. As far as prison and parole officials know, he has little, if any, contact with his children, the oldest of whom is 72.
During his working life, Rodriguez was a cook, an interpreter and a delivery driver. He now spends much of his day lying in a prison hospital bed, though he takes pride in the fact that he still has some vigor left.
"I don't look like I'm old," he said. "There's a 70-year-old man here who looks older than me."
At 94, California's oldest inmate still a 'lifer'
Times Staff Writer
April 10, 2007
At 94, John Rodriguez has the dubious distinction of being the oldest inmate in the California prison system.
He looks the part, with his snow-white hair and unsteady gait. But given the crime that put him in prison, he's hardly a sympathetic character.
Rodriguez murdered his wife during a drunken rage on a December day in 1981. He claimed she'd been cheating on him. For that, he stabbed her 26 times with a paring knife. His punishment was a sentence of 16 years to life, and he's spent most of it at the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo.
He's been recommended for parole six times, all of which have been rejected by the last three governors, who characterized him as a threat to society.
Rodriguez isn't alone in his inability to get parole. Since 1988, when California voters gave the governor the power to overrule parole board recommendations for "lifers," the number from that category who have been freed has slowed to a trickle.
Gov. Gray Davis released only six lifers during his five-year tenure. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's numbers are higher but dropping steadily. In 2004, he released 72 lifers, but only 23 last year.
In today's era of stiffer sentences, California politicians are less likely to let convicted murderers go free. But pressure to release the elderly and infirm is increasing, given the state's overflowing prisons. In Sacramento recently, demonstrators urged lawmakers to start thinning the inmate population by releasing geriatric and incapacitated prisoners such as Rodriguez.
Don Specter, whose nonprofit Prison Law Office offers free legal services to California prisoners, said the Rodriguez case "shows how irrational the parole process is."
"The law says you should pay a price for this kind of crime, but not your whole life," he said. "The question becomes, what does the state gain by keeping this man in prison?"
Rodriguez uses a walker and is hard of hearing. He has arthritis and is often forgetful. He's taken some hard falls over the years, breaking his arms and severely bruising himself. He's lived in the prison hospital for two years, sleeping in a dormitory setting rather than a cell.
He's become a fixture around the low-security hospital, where his normal daytime attire is pajama bottoms and a blue prison shirt. Part of his routine is a Sunday visit to the Indian sweat lodge on the prison grounds. And he is a regular at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, an important facet of his life if he ever wants to be released.
For the moment, though, his chances don't look good.
His latest parole hearing is set for June, a few weeks after he turns 95. But Schwarzenegger has already turned him down once, saying that the "gravity alone of the murder" is enough to conclude that Rodriguez would pose an "unreasonable public safety risk."
Rodriguez's lawyer, Michael Beckman, contends that a crime that took place more than a quarter-century ago does not equate to the feeble man in prison today. Since he was sentenced, Rodriguez's most flagrant violations involved phone privileges. Larry Vizard, a prison spokesman, said Rodriguez's last infraction of any kind was in 1992.
Besides his clean prison record, Beckman also points to the Bronze Star that Rodriguez won during World War II and the fact that he has a family willing to take him in.
The office of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) has taken an interest in the case because of Rodriguez's veteran's status.
There is no organized opposition to his release except from the Monterey Park Police Department, which investigated the murder of his wife, Alicia Trejo.
"The victim is not here, and we're still the advocate of the victim," said Capt. James Smith, a department spokesman.
Rodriguez says he has remorse over the murder, that he was insane with jealousy because his much younger wife had taken up with a man closer to her age.
"I just want to get out and be left alone," he said. "I'm sorry for what happened and I shouldn't have done it."
He's been saying that for a long time. The reasons the governors have given for denying parole focus largely on the heinous nature of the crime and concern that Rodriguez would hurt someone else if freed. According to parole hearing documents, much of that centers on the possibility that he will get drunk and go on a tear.
Beckman said Rodriguez has done 10 years more than his minimum sentence for second-degree murder, has never been a disciplinary problem and should be released.
As far back as 2002, Tom Bordonaro, then the parole board's presiding commissioner, said that if anyone was eligible for release, it was Rodriguez. "He's clearly done his time," Bordonaro said after the hearing. "He's clearly beyond his matrix."
Words to that effect have been spoken five other times, and Rodriguez responded with gratitude — only to be told later that the parole had been reversed.
The story of John Rodriguez is set against the backdrop of a prison system in which the population is getting dramatically older, facilities are overcrowded and the mechanism to parole inmates is weighted down by bureaucracy and antiquated procedures — so much so that California is under federal court order to speed up the process to resolve the backlog.
The problem facing the prison system was perhaps summed up best — if inadvertently — by Lawrence Morrison, an L.A. County deputy district attorney, in his argument last year against Rodriguez's release: "This is a difficult case of the type of which the board and governors and prosecutors are going to be facing with an increasing aging population," he said. "Looking at the inmate right now sitting in a wheelchair, he looks like everybody's grandparents."
More and more will be looking like Rodriguez in the coming years. One recent projection is that by 2030, California will have 33,000 geriatric prisoners, compared with about 9,500 now. The increases are attributable to longer sentences, mandatory minimum-sentencing laws and tighter parole policies.
According to one study, the average cost of housing a geriatric prisoner — defined as 55 or older — is about $70,000, two to three times the cost for a younger inmate. The bill climbs even higher for those with serious physical and mental disabilities.
No one, including Rodriguez, tries to downplay the murder that sent him to prison.
As Rodriguez recounted to police, he began drinking early that morning in 1981 and, by about 5 p.m., had consumed an estimated 18 beers.
He then went to Trejo's home and struck her when she opened the door. He began stabbing her with a paring knife, chasing her from room to room as she tried to escape. After he killed her, Rodriguez walked to his own home, where he was waiting when police arrived to arrest him. He was 68 at the time.
When his parole was rejected last year, Linda Shelton, the presiding parole board commissioner, said she wanted to help him avoid having a board decision again reversed by the governor. She suggested that he become a regular at AA meetings.
"You don't have to talk in there," she said. "You just have to go to meetings and listen and you might be able to help other people too."
He does attend meetings, but Beckman contends his client wouldn't present a problem even if he did drink: "If he drank a beer, it would probably put him to sleep."
Beckman also said the aging inmate has been offered a place to stay on the outside.
It comes from Dolores and Antonieta PonceDeLeon of Los Angeles. Dolores said her husband, Fernando, met Rodriguez in prison, liked him and wanted the family to offer him a place to stay when he was released.
Fernando PonceDeLeon died of a heart attack 10 years ago, after his own release from prison. But mother and daughter feel duty-bound to offer Rodriguez a place to stay as a way of honoring Fernando's wishes.
They have sent letters to the board guaranteeing a room for Rodriguez. They sent another one in mid-March when they thought the parole hearing was days away. It was later moved to June.
"He's getting so discouraged each time he doesn't get out," Antonieta PonceDeLeon said. "I think he's got a few years left where he could have a good life."