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On Christmas Day 2003, Matthew Sievert, the only child of a single mother and California state worker named Stepheny Milo, was removed from life support. He’d gone out to a Sacramento park the night before to meet an ex-girlfriend, and had been gunned down. He was 19.

The playground where he was ambushed is five miles and a world away from the white-domed Capitol that was his mother’s workplace. His murder, though, would touch not only those halls, but some of California’s best-known political figures.

Initially, it would touch lawmakers, co-workers and lobbyists who sought to comfort Milo, an administrator for the Assembly’s Republican caucus. Later, it would touch Democratic Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon of Los Angeles, who, in 2014 married the sister of Chan “John” Lam, one of the young men convicted of killing Sievert.

In February 2018, it would touch then-Gov. Jerry Brown, whom Rendon asked to read his brother-in-law’s petition for mercy. Ten months later, just before Thanksgiving, Brown reduced Lam’s sentence.

Lam could be released this year, 16 years after the murder.


Few governors would ignore such a request from a legislative leader. Beyond that, a comparison of Brown’s action on similar cases supports his and Rendon’s assertion that Lam got no special treatment.

Rendon’s brother-in-law has been, by all accounts, a model inmate. Brown’s decision to shorten Lam’s sentence was consistent with his view that people can change, held since his earliest days in public service. The former Jesuit seminarian reduced the sentences of 283 prisoners, including Lam, and pardoned 1,332 people who had served their time, more by far than any California governor before him.

“I guess your question is: ‘Should we discriminate and would that be lawful?’” Brown said when asked about Lam. “'You’re totally deserving, but we’re not going to give it to you because … others are going to write nasty stories and imply there are politics involved.’”

In a larger sense, though, the murder of Matthew Sievert and its aftermath offer a case history in one of California’s most enduring quandaries. In the years since Lam and his friends fatally attacked Milo’s son, the criminal-justice pendulum has swung from a policy of mass incarceration to a view that rehabilitation is a fairer and more farsighted bet.

Through that lens, Brown’s decision was a study in the forces that shape the law and its enforcement—and of a question that has haunted and cost not just politicians like Rendon and Brown, or criminals and victims like Lam and Sievert, but also generations of Californians: How do we balance pain and redemption, mercy and safety, society and victims, crime and punishment?

Sixteen years is a long time in politics. On Christmas 2003, Anthony Rendon was celebrating at his parents’ home in Whittier, having left a job working on gang intervention to become a consultant. Jerry Brown was mayor of Oakland, confronting a spike in homicides.

It’s a long time for teenagers, too. In late 2003, Matthew Sievert’s 17-year-old ex-girlfriend, Nicole Carroll, was embroiled in drama.

Venting to Lam, she’d claimed Sievert disparaged her father and said something derogatory about Asians, though there was no evidence that Sievert was racist. Lam was 17, too, and had been jealous that Carroll had dated Sievert. To impress her, Lam offered to beat him up. She agreed.

They devised a plan, and early on Christmas Eve morning, Carroll phoned Sievert and asked him to meet her at Tahoe Park, a few blocks from where Carroll’s father lived, and a mile from the home he and his mother shared. Matthew borrowed his mom’s car, a five-year-old Camry. He promised to return in 20 minutes.

Lam and nine other teenagers converged in three cars on Tahoe Park. One brought nunchucks. Two brought guns. They waited as Sievert and Carroll talked on a bench. He stood and tried to hug her goodbye. She brushed him away twice, then relented. He walked to his car. As he turned on the ignition, Lam and his friends sped up, using their cars to box him in.

When Sievert tried to accelerate, Hung Thieu Ly, 18, his face obscured by a bandana, fired his .38-caliber revolver, striking Sievert in the chest and left temple. Lam, Carroll, Ly and the others drove off. Sievert’s car rolled into a fence across the street, its tires spinning. It was a little before 1 a.m.

“Oh well, I didn’t like him anyways,” Carroll said, according to participants who testified against her.

When her son didn’t return, Milo called a friend who drove her to search for him at Tahoe Park and Carroll’s father’s home. They probably drove right past the Camry. First responders found him an hour after the shooting, and rushed him to the UC Davis Medical Center. Someone from the hospital called his mom.

After her son’s death, Milo’s coworkers at the Capitol rallied around her. Then-Assembly Republican Leader Dave Cox asked that the chamber adjourn in Sievert’s memory on Jan. 5, 2004. On Jan. 6, the day Lam and Carroll were arrested, then-Assembly Policy Director Richard Mersereau sent an email throughout the building saying a fund had been established for her.

An insurance lobbyist called her carrier to make sure she got top dollar for the Camry, and lawmakers and staffers chipped in to buy her a replacement, a VW Beetle. When court hearings consumed her vacation time, the Assembly’s Democratic leaders changed policy to let her take sick leave, and staffers from both parties donated their sick days to her.

“We go hammer-and-tong on the issues,” Mersereau said. “But we have to care for our own.”

As the months stretched into years, however, at least one new member of the Capitol community remained a stranger to Milo: the older sister of the teenager who had set up her son’s ambush.

A graduate of UC Davis in Asian American studies, Annie Lam had forged a very different path from her errant brother’s and had gone to work as a junior aide to then-Assemblywoman Judy Chu.


Sacramento County Deputy District Attorney Donell Slivka prosecuted Lam, Carroll, Ly and two others, Jimmy Cooc and John Dich, in a single jury trial. The other participants testified against them.

Lam’s parents are Vietnamese refugees who worked in the fields and at other hard jobs in and around Sacramento to provide for their five kids. John Lam, the youngest, was born here. Lam’s father regularly attended court, wearing a tie and sitting behind Milo on the prosecution side of the courtroom. One day, a lens from Milo’s glasses popped out. Lam’s father found it and handed it to her.

“I thanked him,” she said. “I felt bad for him. He seemed like someone who really tried hard to do for his kids.”

Although only one defendant pulled the trigger, Slivka won convictions in 2005 of all five for first degree murder, based on the natural and probable consequence doctrine: Their plan to beat Sievert predictably resulted in his death. The murder occurred in the course of a felony, so each was as culpable as the shooter—or so the theory went.

Within a decade and a half, that thinking would change. But this was then: At their sentencing, Milo stood in Superior Court Judge Trena Burger-Plavan’s courtroom and spoke, aiming most of her anger at Carroll, the teenage girl at the center of the crime.

“Matthew was my life. You took my life,” she said. “I go over this whole thing every single day, several times. When you think of that night, and you will, I hope it rots your brain like acid. I hope you feel the pain in some way. I hope your days are filled with fright and pain.”

The judge sentenced the shooter to life in prison without parole. Lam and Carroll got 26 years to life, and the other two to 25-to-life.

“They have to be punished,” Milo told the judge. “This has to stick.”


John Lam arrived at Corcoran State Prison, one of the state’s highest security joints, in 2006. Driven by a generation of tough-on-crime legislation, California’s prison population that year stood at 172,528, a record high. He was 19.

“The violence and intimidation shocked me at first, but eventually fear became the norm,” he would later write in a prison newspaper. Back home, his sister Annie was by now working to elect Judy Chu’s husband—and her future employer—Mike Eng, to the Assembly. Rendon managed that campaign.

That’s where Rendon and Annie Lam met, though they didn’t start dating for several more years. She’s a consultant now focusing on mentoring Asian Americans.

The contrast between brother and sister didn’t surprise Rendon. “I worked in gang-reduction programs, and saw this a lot. I saw it in immigrant families where some people were successful, and some weren’t.”

That dynamic extended to his own family. In 1997, while Rendon pursued his doctorate in political science at UC Riverside, a cousin’s son was shot and killed at age 16 in Echo Park. He talks of distant relatives who, in family photos, throw gang signs.

In 2010, Milo retired, unaware that Annie Lam was Assemblyman Eng’s staffer. Rendon rose through the ranks of Democratic activism in Los Angeles, not joining the Legislature until two years after Milo’s retirement. In our term-limited era, with institutional memories short, Rendon winced upon being told, recently, that Matthew Sievert’s mother worked for 24 years in the House he now leads. Brown became attorney general and then governor, again.

Then, in 2011, came a decision that shifted the dynamics of criminal justice in California: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the state’s prisons were so crowded that they violated the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

Brown had initially fought the case, but came to embrace the ruling, pushing legislators to enact laws that would cut prison population. It now stands at around 125,000, largely because of his policies.

Brown signed a 2011 bill that kept lower-level criminals out of prison, and another giving second chances to people who commit murders as teenagers. He also signed transparency legislationrequiring that governors give notice to prosecutors before granting clemency.

That bill was a response to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s decision to halve the 16-year sentence of Esteban Núñez, the son of former Speaker Fabian Núñez, in connection with the stabbing death of a San Diego college student. Schwarzenegger granted only 10 clemency petitions during his six years in office, and acted without notice in 2011 on his final day in office. He later said he’d exercised his executive prerogative out of friendship with the then-speaker.

“Victims and their families should not be blindsided when a request is made for a sentence to be commuted,” Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said after Brown signed the bill.

After his 2014 re-election, Brown went on to fund Proposition 57, a 2016 initiative that offers prisoners the possibility of release if they rehabilitate themselves. He assigned a dozen lawyers and staffers to sift through prisoners’ requests for mercy, and deliver promising petitions to the Board of Prison Hearings for full investigations.

And he signed a major overhaul of the felony murder rule. The new law restricts prosecutors’ ability to charge and convict people of first-degree murder who, like Lam, didn’t actually pull the trigger.

“Basically, I believe the sentences are too damned long,” Brown said in an interview. “There are literally thousands of people who have turned their lives around and are being kept in cages for no legitimate reason, other than that’s the law in California.


Rendon, elected to the Assembly in 2012 and as Speaker in 2015, doesn’t tell many people about his brother-in-law. They’ve spoken briefly by phone, never in person. Although he accompanies his wife on the drive to San Quentin, he doesn’t go in, at her insistence. Instead, he reads or works on his laptop at a nearby Starbucks.

“It is not something I have pressed. It is a tough subject for them,” Rendon said.

One day last February, though, he walked from the speaker’s office to the governor’s office with a thick envelope: “I said, ‘I have something I want you to take a look at, something I want you to consider. I don’t want you to be blindsided. It’s somebody who is related to me.’”

It was Lam’s clemency petition, 192 pages. Rendon recalled Brown’s reaction as being “very Jerry Brown.”

“He started talking about criminal justice, theological-Jesuit stuff,” the speaker recalled. “I felt like my part was very brief.”

Both Lam and his sister declined to be interviewed for this story, but the package details Lam’s accomplishments: a high school diploma, four community college degrees. He has learned carpentry and has been a member of prison groups that did Bible study, restorative justice and gang rehabilitation. It also includes laudatory notes from prison officers, who report Lam has never been disciplined while in prison.

The centerpiece is Lam’s letter to Brown. In it, he described the fights, drugs and violence that were “a normal part” of his gang life leading up to the murder. Of the crime, he wrote, “the fact that we brought guns meant it was likely something much worse would happen, and it did. … We attacked and shot Matthew, then we ran away, like cowards.

“Today, I fully understand that my decisions during the night of the crime were just as costly as those of the person who pulled the trigger. Actually, I believe my actions were probably worse, because I was the person who got my friends together with the intention of attacking Matthew.”

Lam ended by saying he is “fully committed to living a life of service to others.” He has been at San Quentin, one of the top prisons for rehabilitative programs, since 2012. One of his staunchest advocates is Scott Budnick, whom he met there.

Budnick, who gained fame as producer of the “Hangover” movies, has also helped shape the law, as a proponent of sentencing reform, especially for offenders who committed crimes as teenagers. Teen brains are not fully formed, so they are not fully responsible for their actions, or so goes that theory.

“What stood out to me is that a lot of people screw up in prison before they realize what is important in life. John recognized that at a very young age,” said Budnick, who wrote to Brown urging mercy for Lam.


Lam has eight job offers, including ones from Budnick and Annie Lam, who promises to provide him a place to live and position in her consultancy business. Brown’s clemency team turned the case over to the Board of Parole Hearings, and a board investigator informed the judge and prosecutor at the end of February 2018 that he was opening an investigation of Lam’s request.

Slivka, the prosecutor, wrote a letter opposing Lam’s release, though she was not surprised at the outcome. Views have shifted: An appellate court had previously reduced convictions of Cooc and Dich to second-degree murder. Cooc got out last year. Dich likely will be released soon. Besides Lam, only Hung Ly, Sievert’s shooter, and Carroll—who remains behind bars at the California Institution for Women in Corona—were left.

On Nov. 21, 2018, Brown granted clemency to 52 convicted murders, reducing their sentences by a decade or more and making them eligible to appear before the Board of Parole Hearings for potential release.

Of those, 38 individuals had pulled the trigger, including two who committed double homicides. Thirty-two had been sentenced to life in prison without parole. Most committed the crimes as teenagers. One was Hung Ly, Sievert’s shooter. He’ll be eligible for parole in 2021. Another was Lam.

In knocking 10 years off Lam’s 26-to-life sentence, Brown wrote that Lam is “dedicated to living without violence and serving others.” Lam is scheduled to appear before the Parole Board later in May.

Milo is thinking about making a statement at Lam’s parole hearing.

“This thing about prisons being crowded, and not humane: What was humane about killing somebody? … I have no mercy for any of these people,” the mother said.

She was sitting in the front room of her East Sacramento home, near a framed photo of Matthew. She has a medallion acknowledging that his organs were donated. She has never returned to Tahoe Park, but has thought a lot about justice and what might have been had that night not happened. Maybe Matthew would be living with her now. Perhaps he would have married. Probably he would have wanted a job working outside.

Or maybe he would have evolved, like so much else. He was so young on the night they killed him. He would be a grown man now, like Lam, had he survived.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. Below: Chan “John” Lam, 17 when the murder occurred, was sent first to Corcoran, then to San Quentin prison. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Published in Politics

Before responsible Riverside County voters go to the polls on Nov. 6, not only will they need to determine which candidates are the most qualified; they’ll need to examine candidates’ statements and positions to determine what is based on fact—and what is not.

This brings us to the race for California’s 28th Senate District—which includes the entire Coachella Valley—where incumbent Republican State Sen. Jeff Stone is running for a second term against Democratic challenger Joy Silver.

Silver is an underdog in the race. In the June primary election, Stone received 56 percent of the vote, compared to 34.7 percent for Silver—a margin of more than 34,000 votes. (A third candidate, Anna Nevenic, a Democrat, received 9.3 percent.)

We asked each candidate why he or she thought constituents should vote for them.

“Probably because I have a proven track record of being an elected official,” said Stone during a recent phone interview. “I’m completing my 26th year (of holding elected office). You never really forget who your boss is, and that’s your constituents, so you have to make sure that you’re always doing things in their best interests.

“Whether I was on the city council (of Temecula), or the board of supervisors (of Riverside County) or now in the California state government, whenever I meet with a governing body, I always feel like I’ve got my constituents sitting on my shoulder, and I ask myself, ‘Is this something they would like or not like?’ Certainly, coming to the state Senate has been a much more challenging experience, because you have a third dimension, which is not one that we had at a local level too much, and that’s partisanship. The partisanship is something you can cut with a knife.”

Silver is a small-business owner who built a successful career as a health clinic executive, senior housing developer and business consultant.

“I think it’s important for people to know that I’m not a career politician,” Silver said. “I’m an outsider who will bring real change to Sacramento, and that will include standing up to those policies coming out of Washington when they hurt all Californians. I want to bring my experience to work on our local priorities, and to fight for the values of our Riverside County constituents … all of us.”

The Independent asked what their priorities would be if elected to the four-year term.

“I carry some very basic fundamentals with me in being an elected official,” Stone said. “One is that government has limited responsibilities, mostly ensuring that our citizens are safe and healthy; and for those who don’t have financial resources, we need to make sure that we help them, especially those who want to help themselves.

“We’ve seen public safety deteriorate with all these terrible initiatives like Prop 47 (which reduced penalties for some crimes, passed in 2014), Prop 57 (passed in 2016, it incentivizes prison inmates to take responsibility for their own rehabilitation, among other things) and AB 109 (passed in 2011 in response to a U.S. Supreme Court order to reduce California prison populations, it transferred certain nonviolent offenders from the state prison system to county-level supervision). These public-safety experiments have come at the cost of a lot of lives and the demise of many businesses.”

Statistics, however, don’t support Stone’s claims. A June 21 report from the Public Policy Institute of California indicates that property-crime rates have decreased slightly since 2011, when the first of these laws was enacted. While violent-crime rates have increased slightly in that time frame, they are still about 50 percent less than year 2000 levels.

Silver said her priorities would include job creation, universal healthcare for all California residents, developing a clean energy economy, career/vocational training, the expansion of affordable housing, and advocacy for immigrant communities.

We asked if universal health care was a realistic goal.

“I do think it is an achievable goal, and with my expertise in the provision of healthcare services, I think I can help move that concept into a place (where) it can work,” she said. “We do have a large economy. Certainly, there are smaller economies in the world that are providing health care for their people, and I think that with the right plan, we can make it happen here for Californians.”

The ever-increasing cost of many prescription drugs is another concern she hopes to address.

“I feel that there needs to be a particular focus on the ability to do group purchases,” Silver said. “Certainly, I’m not the first one to come up with that. When I did work in the health-care business, and we did provide service to a mostly Medicaid patient population, the key there was for independent ambulatory surgical centers to participate in group purchases of items, and that helped us turn around and provide needed goods to the population that we were serving. I think that would be one of the ways to contain costs in a larger venue like our state.”

Stone—who ran unsuccessfully for Congress against Dr. Raul Ruiz in 2016—said the business climate is a top concern.

“I’ve been an active opponent to taxation since I started my political endeavors in 1992, and I’ve never voted for a tax,” Stone said. “We need to do a better job of keeping jobs in California. We’re seeing a flight of the middle class out of the state. We see the price of homes out of the reach of middle-class Californians. Look at the flight out of San Francisco—the liberal experiment that goes on (there) where you have ‘shooting galleries,’ which are places to shoot heroin. And you see the homeless population exponentially increasing there with people bagging feces on the street, and hypodermic needles all over the place. … Even the property values here in Sacramento have been climbing like crazy. Why? Because the people in the Bay Area are trying to escape all this horrific policy that has reduced the quality of life of the people living in those areas.”

The Independent asked both candidates what solutions they would propose to combat the proliferation of wildfires in our state.

“We have to take into consideration that the dryness is part of that issue,” Silver said. “I know that in Idyllwild, they’ve had a plan, and because that plan was in place with various stop-gap measures and ways to coordinate with local fire departments at different points in time, they were able to contain the smaller fires that were initiated by embers. I think that Northern California (communities) could benefit from a plan such as the one in Idyllwild, because they knew how to control and contain. Aside from that, we’re going to have to look at climate and environmental issues to see how we can bring down the heat factor. We have to look at how we can work with a clean-energy economy to do that.”

Stone pointed out that he’s on a committee of lawmakers looking into the spate of fires.

“This has been the worst fire season that we’ve had, and it’s attributable, in some sense, to climate change, but it’s also due to our radical environmental policies that don’t allow us to go in and thin forests and get rid of the 129 million dead or dying trees in the state of California, all in the name of ‘environmental stewardship,’” he said.

The estimate on the dead-tree population came from the U.S. Forest Service in December 2017.

“But at the same time as environmentalists have prohibited us from going in to clear brush and trees, look at how many acres now have been completely erased from California’s landscape,” Stone continued. “How many endangered species and animals have perished in all of these fires that maybe we could have prevented? Certainly we couldn’t have prevented those involving arson, which includes two (recent) fires in my district, the Cranston Fire and the Holy Fire. But in other areas of the state, we could have prevented some of these fires potentially, or at least (lessened) the magnitude of the fires had we cleared the brush.”

The facts don’t necessarily support Stone’s position—particularly his placement of blame on environmentalists for the fires. According to an article from Aug. 7 in The Sacramento Bee, “As of 2015, through the national forests, national parks, Bureau of Land Management, and others, the federal government manages more than 40 percent of California’s total (forest) acreage. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, by comparison, manages a little more than 30 percent. The Trump administration’s own budget request for the current fiscal year and the coming one proposed slashing tens of millions of dollars from the Department of Interior and U.S. Forest Service budgets dedicated to the kind of tree clearing and other forest management work experts say is needed.”

Published in Politics