The freedom of James Mackey, after spending almost half his life in state prison for the crossbow murder of a Stockton real estate agent, could be in the hands of Gov. Jerry Brown by next month.
Mackey, 49, was found eligible for parole at a March 21 hearing at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione. He was denied parole at two previous hearings.
The decision whether to release him is expected to reach the governor's office by July 21. Brown then has 30 days to review it.
Mackey and Carl Charles Hancock each agreed to a guilty plea in 1989 to the bizarre first-degree murder of Stockton Realtor Laurence J. Carnegie. Mackey and Hancock met while playing football at University of the Pacific.
Hancock, a prisoner at California State Prison, Solano, was denied parole in October. He has to wait three years for his case to be reconsidered.
Mackey and Hancock each became eligible for early parole consideration as part of plea deals in which they agreed to testify against Stockton developer Michael Blatt.
The case made national headlines for the unusual choice of weapons, for its murder-for-hire accusations and for testimony during Blatt's second trial that had National Football League implications.
Mackey and Hancock accused Blatt, an NFL sports agent and interim Seattle Seahawks' general manager, of hiring them to kill Carnegie, a former partner.
They said Blatt blamed Carnegie for bad-faith business dealings and for costing him the permanent NFL executive position.
Blatt was charged with orchestrating the murder, and he was tried twice -- both times in Oakland because of heightened awareness in San Joaquin County. The first trial ended with the jury deadlocked 9-3 for conviction, the second ended 11-1 for acquittal.
Mackey testified at both trials, and his veracity was called into question both times.
He and Hancock have been in prison ever since. Blatt, after three years in jail, walked away. He is now in his mid-60s and lives in Sausalito, where he has part ownership in the Alta Mira Recovery Programs, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center located in a former hotel in the hills high above San Francisco Bay.
Last summer, Mackey, who has completed a paralegal course in prison, petitioned California's Third Appellate Court to overturn a 2010 parole denial.
In that document, Mackey said he had remarried a childhood sweetheart, achieved a master's degree in humanities, earned average-to-exceptional ratings while working in the kitchen, obtained a real estate license and became certified in air conditioning and refrigeration work.
Mackey also pointed to laudatory evaluations in several rehabilitative and self-help programs.
Arguing his suitability for parole, the document also expressed Mackey's desire "to live with his wife in Manteca, where he has two job offers and support from a minister and from family and community members." Mackey is a graduate of East Union High School.
The crime itself was surreal.
In February 1989, Hancock, posing as a potential home buyer, lured Carnegie to a rural residence four miles east of Lodi.
Mackey was hiding inside a garage with the crossbow. His shot entered Carnegie's back and exited his chest, but it did not kill him.
The two men tried to suffocate their struggling victim with a sleeping bag when headlights from a passing car revealed what was transpiring.
Mackey and Hancock abandoned plans to drive to Lake Tahoe and dump the body in the lake, quickly stuffing Carnegie inside the trunk of their rented vehicle and driving west instead.
They ended up in Sonoma County where together they used a rope to strangle a still-alive Carnegie before dropping his body down a ravine.
He was 38 at the time and left behind a wife and three small daughters.
Three months later, Mackey and Hancock had been arrested and charged with first-degree murder. They left an obvious trail of evidence that included a crossbow arrow, the blood-soaked sleeping bag and a car rented on a credit card in Mackey's name.
For now, Mackey is awaiting the normal 120-day review by the state Board of Parole. The outcome will only change if "any errors of law or fact" are discovered.
Then Mackey's fate will be in Brown's hands. The governor can reverse, modify, affirm or decline to review the decision to release him.
As a backdrop, a panel of three federal judges said this week that California must take immediate steps to release inmates and comply with a U.S. Supreme Court-backed order to reduce the state prison population.
Will that pressure impact Brown's decision?
"I don't think it's appropriate for the CDCR (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) to comment," said Luis Patino, an agency spokesman. "The governor has to make the decision."
Contact reporter Kevin Parrish at (209) 546-8264 or firstname.lastname@example.org. ___