Release Date: June 8, 2022
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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Ruling holds state parole law invalid

In a decision announced Friday, June 3, a Sacramento Superior Court judge has blocked the parole of Lawrence Cottle, finding a 2017 state law that made him eligible for parole unconstitutional.

The decision in the case of Peterson v. Board of Parole Hearings, was in response to a lawsuit by Laura Peterson, whose father, Alan Peterson, was murdered by Cottle in 1996 during a five-day crime spree. While Cottle could have received a death sentence were he an adult at the time of the murder, because he was 16 he was sentenced to life in prison without parole (LWOP). Under California’s 1990 Proposition 115, state judges were given the discretion to sentence aggravated murderers under age 18 to either 25 years to life or LWOP. The initiative specified that it could only be amended by a two-thirds vote of both houses of the California Legislature.

In 2017, the Legislature passed and Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 394 into law. Subject to few exceptions, that law authorizes parole eligibility during a prisoner’s 25th year of incarceration for prisoners who were convicted of aggravated murder prior to turning 18 years old and sentenced to LWOP. The bill passed in the California State Assembly with 44 votes, 9 votes shy of two-thirds, which is 53. In May 2021, Laura Peterson learned that Cottle was scheduled for a parole hearing under this law. At a June hearing, a panel of the Board of Parole Hearings (BPS) found Cottle suitable for parole. In September, the BPS vacated Cottle’s parole, but later scheduled a new hearing for February 25, 2022.

On January 7, 2022, on Laura Peterson’s behalf, the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (CJLF) filed a lawsuit to block Cottle’s parole hearing, arguing that SB 394 was invalid because it was not passed by a two-thirds vote of the State Assembly as required by Proposition 115.

On February 4, 2022, Peterson filed an application with the Superior Court of Sacramento County to stop Cottle’s upcoming parole hearing. Judge Stacy Boulware Eurie scheduled a hearing on the matter for the morning of February 25. At that hearing, CJLF Associate Attorney Kymberlee Stapleton argued that the law allowing the parole hearing to proceed as scheduled was unconstitutional. Because the BPS had scheduled Cottle’s parole hearing prior to Peterson initiating the case, the judge allowed the parole hearing to proceed as scheduled. At that hearing, Cottle was granted parole.

The judge noted that because the BPS’s decision would not become final for 120 days, she would consider Peterson’s legal challenge to the law. On March 10, CJLF filed a petition to block Cottle’s release on parole.

That petition was argued on Friday, June 3. A decision was posted on the court’s website on Monday afternoon, June 6. The Board of Parole Hearings, Cottle’s attorney, and the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation claimed that because SB 394 did not actually amend Proposition 115, the Legislature was not required to pass it by a two-third’s vote. The court rejected that claim. The BPS and Cottle also argued that adoption of SB 394 was required to comply with recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions placing limits on LWOP for juvenile murderers. CJLF argued that they misinterpreted those decisions. The court agreed, and found that, “[t]he Court concludes that SB 394 was not lawful because it amends Proposition 115 without the required two-thirds majority ....”

The murder occurred on November 14, 1996. Peterson, a Laguna Hills contractor, was just leaving a Jack in the Box with his lunch when Cottle shot him in the chest during an attempted carjacking. Peterson died in a hospital 30 minutes later. The next day Cottle robbed a man at gunpoint in Culver City. An hour later he robbed a young mother at an Inglewood check cashing store, pointing his gun at her 4-year-old daughter’s head as the woman emptied her purse. The next day Cottle robbed a man and stole his car in Gardena and was caught when he crashed the stolen vehicle into a police car. For his crimes, Cottle was tried as an adult and convicted on 13 counts, including aggravated first-degree murder.

“A sentence of LWOP exists for good reason, and legal finality for the murder victim’s family is one of them. The Legislature’s transformation of LWOP sentences into 25-years-to-life sentences for juvenile murderers, without the required legislative majority, sentences victims’ families to a lifetime of frequent and difficult parole hearings. This decision is likely to be appealed. We intend to continue representing Laura Peterson and other families of juvenile murderers to assure that this misguided law is not enforced,” said Stapleton.

CJLF Associate Attorney Kymberlee Stapleton is available for comment
at (916) 446-0345