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Inmate priest due for Sunday release
Schwarzenegger now agrees with parole decision

By Mary Frances Schjonberg

Grace Cathedral, San Francisco
James Tramel   (Grace Cathedral, San Francisco)

[Episcopal News Service]  Reversing an earlier decision, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has agreed with his state parole board’s decision to parole a convicted murderer who became an Episcopal priest while behind bars.

The California Board of Prison Terms voted in October 2005 to release James Tramel, 38, who was convicted in 1986 of killing a homeless man in Santa Barbara. Schwarzenegger, who rejected a similar decision by the parole board a year ago, declined this time around to review his case, said Julie Soderlund, an aide to the governor.

If a case is not reviewed by the governor, the board's decision stands. Schwarzenegger's office did not say why the governor changed his mind.

Tramel is scheduled to be released Sunday, according to the Rev. Richard Helmer, a San Francisco Episcopal priest who coordinated a campaign for Tramel's parole.

"I feel humbled," Tramel told the Los Angeles Times from Solano State Prison in Vacaville, California. "I feel the weight of my responsibility to justify the faith that people have put in me."

Tramel was convicted in 1986 and was serving a sentence of 15 years to life. He was present when David Kurtz stabbed Michael Stephenson to death in a park in Santa Barbara, California. Tramel was 17 at the time of the murder and was attending Northwestern Preparatory School in Santa Barbara. He had an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy.

The murder happened when Tramel, Kurtzman and other students set out one night to confront some gang members whom they said had attacked a fellow student, according to Tramel's written account of the murder. Tramel wrote the account for a hearing before the California Board of Prison Terms.

The students did not find any gang members but Kurtzman and Tramel encountered a man in the park's large gazebo to whom they spoke briefly. Tramel wrote that he turned his back on Kurtzman and Stephenson while he was standing on the far side of the gazebo. He heard a sound that made him turn around, only to see Kurtzman stabbing Stephenson.

Tramel wrote he is ashamed that he didn't help Stephenson or try to get help for him. He admits not contacting the police.

"Having reflected on this crime for more than half my life, I am intimately aware of my guilt," he wrote. "Every day I suffer remorse for my crime. To my perpetual regret, nothing will reverse that horrible day in 1985."

The victim's father criticized the decision to release Tramel.

"We certainly don't want him out but there's not a thing we can do," Edward Stephenson of Newport Beach told the Los Angeles Times.

Tramel's release was supported by the Santa Barbara County district attorney's office, which prosecuted him, and by many Episcopal clergy and lay people. Prior to becoming a priest, Tramel began an Episcopal congregation at the prison, which started with a group of inmates saying prayers from the Book of Common Prayer. Eventually, the congregation grew, and chaplains began visiting to conduct full communion services. He has also served on the prison's religious advisory committee, and thus has had the ability to move about the prison to visit inmates, hear confessions, make hospital visits and take communion to men who can not come to the Sunday Eucharist.

In 1998, he became the first inmate ever admitted to an Episcopal seminary when he entered the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP) in Berkeley, California. He earned a Master of Theological Studies degree in May 2003. Students, faculty and staff from CDSP regularly traveled to the prison and talked to Tramel on the phone during his studies.

Tramel joined the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Berkeley. When the congregation decided to sponsor him for ordination, he met with members of the congregation and the California Commission on Ministry through letters, over the phone, and in the visiting room at Solano Prison. Swing ordained him to the diaconate at the prison on July 4, 2004.

Any inmate with $25 or so can become an “ordained” minister, Tramel said last fall, pointing instead to his journey through the Episcopal Church's rigorous and lengthy ordination process which includes, among other things, psychological exams.

Tramel was granted parole in late October 2004, and was due to be released in March 2005, in time to serve as deacon at the Easter Vigil service at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, California. Instead, Schwarzenegger reversed the board’s decision on Good Friday. Swing strongly criticized the governor from the cathedral pulpit that Easter Sunday, calling him “a 90-pound moral weakling” for turning down Tramel's parole.

This Easter, the bishop plans to introduce Tramel to the congregation at Grace Cathedral.

"You don't have to believe in resurrection," Swing told the Los Angeles Times Thursday. "You can just look up and see it."

Swing thanked Schwarzenegger but acknowledged that any inmate's parole is a leap of faith.

"I realize that the test is what's going to happen when he's out," Swing said. "That's where folks have to trust somebody, and I thank them for trusting James and me and the Episcopal Church."

Swing ordained Tramel to the priesthood on June 18, 2005 at California State Prison, Solano, in Vacaville. He is the first person ordained to the Episcopal priesthood while incarcerated.

Tramel was licensed to serve the prison congregation by Bishop Jerry A. Lamb of Northern California, the diocese in which the prison is located. Lamb has made two episcopal visits to the prison. During his most recent visit in July 2005, Tramel baptized two inmates and Lamb confirmed them along with six others.

Tramel will be an assisting priest at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Berkeley. He has also been offered a job writing for the Via Media program of the Every Voice Network ( He is engaged to the Rev. Stephanie Green, a fellow Episcopal priest who he met when she and a number of CDSP students and others visited the prison to help him pursue his theology degree.