Should society care about what happens to convicted killers once they're released from prison? Are their lives redeemable? Does it even matter if they are?

Nancy Mullane tries to provide the answers without ever asking the questions. She does it by tracking the lives of five convicted murderers during and after their time in San Quentin Prison.

It all started when Mullane, a reporter from National Public Radio, was assigned to do a story about the high cost of keeping prisoners.

Fearful at first of coming face-to-face with men who had killed, she slowly came to recognize them as more than incarcerated humans with numbers on their clothes. That morphed into gaining their trust and, eventually, compiling their sorrows and joys both inside and outside San Quentin.

Meet Richie Rael. He takes the author to the parking lot where he and others fought with two men. One died, the other was critically wounded from a knife. Rael kicked the man who died in the head. He was 19. He was convicted of murder and assault and sentenced to life behind bars with the possibility of parole. After 22 years in San Quentin, he was paroled.

Mullane uses Rael and the others to elaborate on California's politically sensitive prison-sentence laws. Voters in that state approved a measure in 1988 that gave California's governor the authority to overrule a Parole Board's recommendation. Thus, "Life" notes, a board determining a lifer "suitable" for parole doesn't translate into a get-out-of-jail card.

Meet Don Cronk. After 27 years in San Quentin for killing a man during a robbery, he's been found suitable. He's been a model prisoner, assisted the prison chaplain for years and has been engaged for more than 15 years to a woman he's never been with overnight. He's excited about being found "suitable," but tempers his enthusiasm knowing he still must pass gubernatorial muster. He doesn't.

Then there's Eddie Ramirez, sentenced after pleading guilty to trying to outrace police after he and three others held up a convenience store and then robbed a man who stepped in to help. During the high-speed chase, Ramirez's car flipped and one of the henchmen died, leading to a charge of second-degree murder and a sentence of 15 years to life with the possibility of parole.

Rael and Ramirez were among the fortunate ones. Mullane notes that, as of 2011, more than 10,000 of the 17,000 California lifers had served sufficient time to be eligible for parole, but only 14 to 15 percent of them got a suitable determination from parole boards, then had to face a thumbs-up or thumbs down from the governor. And, in line with her original NPR assignment, Mullane reports an inmate serving a life sentence costs the state a minimum of $50,000 a year.

In true journalistic fashion, she makes no excuses nor seeks sympathy for her subjects. "Life After" includes interviews with parole commissioners who go into great detail about their methods in assessing inmates for parole.

"Life" also includes information from a gubernatorial staffer on why "suitable" from a parole board doesn't mean "suitable" from the state's chief executive.

But "Life" also documents how California courts reworked the gubernatorial imprimatur as the 21st century dawned. In negating a parole's board "suitable" determination, governors had relied on the severity of the crime, no matter what rehabilitation the inmate had achieved, no matter what his prospects for a crime-free and productive life might be.

The courts determined that was unconstitutional, and the floodgates opened for attorneys to seek release for clients serving life sentences with the possibility of parole. That's how Don Cronk eventually earned his freedom. The author found him one evening sitting on the porch of his fiancée's house. "I'm looking at the stars," he said. "I'm watching a plane fly by. There's trees and birds and bats and night creatures. I haven't been outside at night after 8:30 for more than half my life."

Phillip Seiler was the first of the lifers freed after the courts' rulings. He turned himself in after shooting his drug-addicted wife's lover with a shotgun. Jesse Reed followed. He was a drug addict who killed a man during a robbery.

The lives of Mullane's subjects go in different directions once free, but all have a common denominator – fear they'll misstep and find themselves back in San Quentin. None do, although two experience close calls. Reed and Ramirez do wind up back behind bars, but they come and go as they please as counselors in rehabilitation programs.

Mullane is emphatic about the lives that face convicted killers after release from prison. Her subjects found work, crime-free routines and childlike joy in rediscovering what they had missed while behind bars. She reports, in the past 21 years 1,000 California lifers with the possibility of parole had been paroled, and none committed murder again.

As one told her, reflecting on what his crime had done to his life and the lives of so many others, "you're more likely to commit murder than I am."

Lee Coppola is a former investigative reporter for The News and Buffalo television as well as a former prosecutor and dean of St. Bonaventure University's Journalism School.


Life After Murder

By Nancy Mullane

Public Affairs

366 pages, $26.99