After spending more than 20 years in prison following an ill-fated escape attempt at a Paso Robles juvenile detention facility while he was still a teen, a man was ordered released from prison by the same San Luis Obispo County judge who sentenced him.
Freddie Chacon, 37, was 16 when he was convicted in 1994 of kidnapping a librarian at the El Paso de Robles Youth Correctional Facility with another juvenile inmate and demanding a truck to drive to Mexico.
Chacon and his accomplice made it only 150 feet from the facility, which has since closed, before crashing the truck and being taken back into custody.
He was tried as an adult and found guilty of a host of felony charges including kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon and extortion. Superior Court Judge Michael Duffy sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole — a sentence that would be considered unusually harsh today given the crime and age of the defendant, Chacon’s attorney said Wednesday.
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At a hearing in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on April 16, Duffy ordered Chacon freed from the maximum-security Pelican Bay State Prison where Chacon spent the last 22 years, 17 of them in solitary confinement.
On Wednesday, Jennifer Gaspar, a San Francisco-based attorney with the international law firm Sidley Austin LLP, called Chacon’s release long overdue.
“His remorse comes across so stringently, and he is very self-aware about the harm he caused 20 years ago,” Gaspar said. “I can’t imagine a 16-year-old having that same self-reflection about how their actions affected others.”
A spokesperson for the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office, which opposed Chacon’s release, did not return a request for comment Thursday.
Chacon, a Mexican national, was 15 and living with family in San Luis Obispo County when he entered the Paso de Robles School for Boys in 1993 on charges that have not been disclosed due to juvenile privacy laws.
In September 1993, Chacon and a 17-year-old inmate took the librarian hostage with a landscaping nail as a weapon and demanded the truck.
After the truck was provided, Chacon, his accomplice and the hostage all got inside. Chacon, who was driving with the driver-side window partially open, was sprayed with mace by a sheriff’s deputy and crashed the truck.
The hostage sustained minor injuries in the crash.
While serving his time at Pelican Bay, Gaspar said, Chacon was arbitrarily identified by prison guards as associating with gang members and placed in solitary confinement for 17 years.
But in 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that provided a second chance for freedom for the then roughly 300 state prison inmates who were under age 18 when sentenced to life without parole, had served at least 20 years and had shown remorse for their crimes.
Under the new law, inmates meeting that criteria can petition the court for resentencing. Chacon’s accomplice, similarly sentenced to life without parole, was released from prison under the law in May 2014.
Gaspar said her firm began working on an appeal in Chacon’s case in 2011 but filed for resentencing in September 2014.
In March, Chacon was transferred to California Men’s Colony. On March 12, he went before Duffy once again to decide his fate.
In the hearing, Deputy District Attorney Greg Devitt argued that Chacon didn’t fit the criteria for resentencing because only one crime — kidnapping for ransom — held the penalty of life without parole. Other crimes related to the kidnapping, he argued, were violent in nature and should preclude Chacon from probation.
Devitt also called Ricardo Ramirez, a correctional guard at CMC, who testified that Chacon was an associate of the Mexican Mafia prison gang, although he was not an actual gang member, according to court transcripts. Ramirez said he did not know of Chacon’s conduct while in Pelican Bay, except that Chacon participated in a 2012 hunger strike organized by the Mexican Mafia.
Chacon’s defense contested gang ties and submitted multiple letters written by longtime Pelican Bay guards supporting Chacon’s release and reporting his accomplishments in prison, such as learning to read and write.
Standing before Duffy, the woman he once held hostage and nearly a dozen relatives who had traveled from other U.S. states and from Mexico, Chacon expressed regret and asked for forgiveness.
“I’ve put (my family) through a lot of pain, you know, same as the victim of a crime I committed,” Chacon said, according to transcripts. “I can’t live the same way I lived at one time, you know. I regret what I did.”
Chacon then turned to the victim.
“I participated in a crime that I’m pretty sure has marked you for the rest of your life,” he said. “And I just want to say that I’m sorry what I did to you.”
He added: “I never intend to hurt anybody else in my life again.”
The former librarian also spoke.
“I was going to say, before Mr. Chacon spoke up, that no matter how well he did in prison, that really would have no bearing on his future capacity to commit crimes,” the victim said, according to the transcript. “But having heard from him and seeing that he has the support of his family I think the best thing for all concerned would be for the court to follow his wishes and release him to his family.”
Chacon was released from CMC on April 18 with five years of formal probation. However, probation terms will not be enforced when Chacon returns to Mexico. He told the court he never plans to return to the U.S.
Gaspar said Chacon is currently staying with family, adjusting to life outside prison and preparing for the one-way trip to Mexico, where he will work at a family business.
She added that Chacon’s freedom reflects a change in public opinion about the ability of juveniles convicted of serious crimes to rehabilitate.
“I think this is a reflection of the law finally starting to catch up with longstanding evidence that juveniles are not as capable as adults in evaluating consequences,” Gaspar said, “Something that’s been understood in the scientific community for quite a long time.”