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James Crawford in the Orange County Register

Man teased with freedom as his parole is blocked
Remorseful killer and family wait as parole board and governor feud.


Convicted murderer Delbert Crittenden could not believe what he just heard during his parole hearing at Soledad prison last year.

“We find you suitable … and find that you would not pose an unreasonable risk,” Commissioner Susan Fisher told him.

But she stopped midsentence.

“I forgot what I was saying,” she said, “just because of the look on your face.”

“Thank you very, very much,” stammered Crittenden, who was sentenced to life in 1988 after being convicted of second-degree murder for the shotgun death of his brother-in-law in Los Alamitos.

“I’m in shock,” he said. “But it is a good shock.”

Who could blame him?

After all, the parole board annually finds fewer than 250 lifers suitable for release out of an estimated 5,000 hearings, according to Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections.

So Crittenden, 53, started to make plans for his return to society, where he could find work as a plumber and live in Los Alamitos with his mother, Vivian, and his father, Harold.

That was in May of 2006, nearly 15 months ago.

He is still in prison.


Eric Chastain was 35 when he was shot to death May 25, 1987, outside the Los Alamitos home of Delbert Crittenden, his brother-in-law.

The two men had been drinking together earlier that day, and both were probably legally drunk, court records show.

The trouble started when Deborah Chastain showed up and found her husband intoxicated. After words were exchanged, Eric followed Deborah to their home on the back part of the property.

And there, according to Deborah, Chastain slapped her, threw her against a wall divider and choked her.

She ran back to her brother’s house.

Crittenden and Chastain had clashed before, over allegations that Chastain had been beating Deborah. And once – 18 months earlier – Chastain had pummeled Crittenden when a disagreement came to blows.

So Crittenden armed himself with a 12-gauge pump-action Mossberg shotgun. With Deborah screaming and Chastain approaching menacingly, Crittenden fired a warning shot through a sliding glass door, slightly wounding Chastain.

And then, as Deborah shouted, “Dale, don’t!” and with Chastain continuing to approach, Crittenden did.

He leveled the shotgun, looked down the barrel and fired, according to court records. Chastain died later that evening at Long Beach Memorial Hospital.

And Crittenden was arrested for murder.


The thing that defense attorney Robert K. Weinberg remembers most about Crittenden’s case in 1988 was that initially the District Attorney’s Office made an offer to let him plead guilty to the lesser crime of voluntary manslaughter.

He would have served fewer than five years, Weinberg said.

But Crittenden didn’t take the deal.

At trial, Weinberg argued that Crittenden shot his brother-in-law in self-defense and in defense of others.

Deputy District Attorney Jill Roberts argued that Crittenden killed an unarmed man with a shotgun blast from six feet away when he could have made several other choices to defuse the situation.

“I really, really thought Dale would be acquitted,” Weinberg said.

The jury returned in less than five hours: guilty, second-degree murder.

Superior Court Judge Everett Dickey sent Crittenden to prison for 17 years to life.


Crittenden was 33 when he was first sent to the Correctional Training Facility at Soledad, just east of Monterey.

He became a model prisoner. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. He took courses in real estate and infectious diseases. He did vocational training in graphic arts, information technology and data processing. He took anger management classes.

And he continued work as a plumber, even though he was once severely burned when hot water blasted him on a job site inside prison.

But the most important thing he did, according to court records, is take responsibility for his crime.

“I wish I could change what happened with all my heart,” he would tell the parole board. “I am very remorseful,”

But every time he came up for parole, he was denied – until May 2006.

That’s when the parole board found him suitable.

Deputy Commissioner Robert Harmon told him, “I want to wish you luck. I hope everything works out for you.”

So far, it hasn’t.


“You know, he never forgave himself for what happened,” said his mother Vivian. “He always said, ‘Mom, if I could just have those 60 seconds back. …’”

But she believes her son has more than paid the price for his crime. She said the entire family was excited when they learned the parole board had found Crittenden suitable for release.

What they didn’t know was that California’s governor has the authority to overturn the parole board on such matters. In October 2006, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took up Crittenden’s case.

“I never thought he would take suitability away,” Vivian Crittenden said.

She was wrong.

In a letter dated Oct. 18, 2006, Schwarzenegger noted Crittenden’s accomplishments and good behavior in prison, and he commented on Crittenden’s remorse and his acceptance of responsibility.

But then the governor’s letter said, “Despite these positive factors … the second degree murder … was especially grave because of the extremely brutal and callous manner in which he ... gunned down an unarmed man six feet outside the door.

“The gravity of the murder is … sufficient for me to conclude presentably that his release from prison would pose an unreasonable public safety risk.”

Crittenden was no longer eligible for parole.


In a motion filed in Orange County Superior Court in May, James M. Crawford, Crittenden’s court-appointed lawyer, contended that Gov. Schwarzenegger has “clearly shown a pattern … of denying life inmates parole in violation of the … constitution.”

This week, Superior Court Judge Kazuharu Makino agreed with Crawford, ruling that the governor had abused his discretion in blocking Crittenden’s parole based solely on the circumstances of the killing.

“There is … no evidence that (Crittenden) committed this offense in an especially heinous, atrocious or cruel manner,” Makino wrote.

The governor’s office now has 60 days to decide whether to appeal Makino’s ruling.

Crittenden, meanwhile, waits out the legal back-and-forth in his cell at Soledad, while his mother waits at her home in Los Alamitos for him to come home.

“My son has been in there for 20 years,” said Vivian Crittenden, 72. “He has always worked. He has no tattoos. He has never been in any trouble in prison at all.

“He should be out by now.” 


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