A state appellate court decision has paved the way for a Woodland man who killed his girlfriend’s toddler son in 1983 to be released from prison.
Christopher Michael Fowler, 51, has served 29 years for the death of 22-month-old Aaron Miller, who knocked the boy off a bed, shook him and threw him to the floor when he wouldn’t stop crying.
Fowler later pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
A state Board of Parole Hearings panel found Fowler suitable for release at his 13th hearing in November 2010, but that decision was later overturned by Gov. Jerry Brown, who noted that Fowler’s lack of remorse made him a “danger to society.”
“The utter inhumanity of Mr. Fowler’s crime coupled with his inability or unwillingness to understand, own or achieve some credible level of insight tells me that there is a substantial risk of danger to the public were he to be released from prison,” Brown wrote in an April 7, 2011, letter.
But a three-justice panel from the 3rd District Court of Appeal disagreed, issuing a 19-page ruling last week that effectively reversed Brown’s decision.
“Our review of the record reveals no evidence connecting any arguable lack of insight to the conclusion that defendant would present a risk to public safety if released on parole,” states the ruling, authored by Presiding Justice Vance Raye.
“Defendant’s positive behavior in prison, his lengthy participation in seemingly every available rehabilitative program and volunteer program while incarcerated, and his statements to psychologists and the board do not establish any likelihood defendant would pose a risk to public safety if released on parole.”
Associate Justices M. Kathleen Butz and George Nicholson concurred with the decision. Brown’s office is reviewing the case to determine whether to appeal the ruling before the California Supreme Court.
“We are disappointed,” said Jonathan Raven, Yolo County chief deputy district attorney. “Over the years, I have walked into prisons across the state with baby Aaron’s family where we have sat across the table at parole hearings of the man who killed Aaron. Yesterday I had the difficult task of telling Aaron’s aunt about this news. Needless to say, this was very painful for her to hear.”
The aunt, Marcie Honkanen, said she has already penned a letter to Gov. Brown, urging him to pursue the matter before the higher court.
“He’s our only prayer,” said Honkanen, whose family has attended each of Fowler’s parole hearings to oppose his release. While she understands the state’s prisons are overcrowded, “I’m afraid for the public’s safety. (Fowler) has never, ever apologized. He has never, ever shed a single tear.”
According to court records, Fowler had been baby-sitting Aaron and his 3-year-old sister Christy while his girlfriend — the children’s mother, Tina Miller — worked on Nov. 1, 1983. Authorities said Fowler, who was sleep-deprived, high on marijuana and stressed from an argument with Miller the night before, put the children down for naps and attempted to sleep himself.
The children woke him a short time later, with Aaron crying from his bedroom. An agitated Fowler walked into the boy’s room, knocked him to the floor with his hand, then shook him and dropped him to the floor while telling him to be quiet, court records show.
Aaron went still, his skin turning blue. His grandmother Betty Thomas arrived at the home, and, over Fowler’s protests, took the boy to the hospital, where he lay in a coma for two days before succumbing to his injuries. Doctors compared the injuries to a fall from a three-story building.
Although he committed several rule violations during his early years in prison, Fowler has since participated in numerous self-help, work experience and educational programs, earning an associate degree in psychology in 2010, the appellate court ruling noted. His most recent psychological evaluations concluded Fowler was remorseful for his actions and unlikely to reoffend.
“When the basis for the governor’s determination lacks any evidentiary support and conflicts with the evidence in the entire record, it is arbitrary and capricious. It is not rational,” the ruling states. “Here, the record supports the board’s finding that there is no evidence defendant lacks insight and understanding of his murder of Aaron which renders him a danger to public safety if released.”
Fowler currently is housed at the Correctional Training Facility near Soledad, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s online inmate directory. A tentative release date has not yet been set.
— Reach Lauren Keene at [email protected] or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenkeene