BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — In 1999 a man was charged with first-degree murder by torture in the death of a 20-month-old baby. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
But Tuesday, Michael Panella was recommended for early release and parole because he turned 50 years old and completed 20 years of his sentence. Under a state law that passed in 2020, he became eligible for elderly parole.
23ABC spoke to Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer who called the parole board’s recommendation “outrageous.”
“So, you know, is parole bad? No. We need to give inmates something to shoot for. And the programs are great. But in this particular case, I think it was an injustice. It’s just not enough time.”
At the time of the baby’s death, the 20-month-old had over 40 bruises on his body and severe internal bleeding according to documents from the DA’s office.
According to a statement from the Kern County District Attorney Office, "other inmates heard Panella make various statements, such as, 'I killed that little bastard,' and also heard Panella brag that he was going to get away with murder, 'just like O.J. Simpson.'" He also threatened a witness in the case.
Panella will have served less than the minimum 25 years to life he was sentenced to.
Governor Gavin Newsom can still reverse the parole board's decision.
District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer's Statement:
“The state Legislature and the Board of Parole have lost their sense of justice by respectively passing laws that allow for, and ultimately recommending the early release of a man who murdered and tortured an infant. State laws now allow parole of child murderers on the basis of “elderly parole” before they even qualify for the senior discount at McDonald’s or to draw Social Security. Michael Panella was rightly convicted of the horrendous crime of torturing baby Johnathan to death, and now is on the brink of release due to state laws that blatantly favor murderers over their victims. Though state laws define inmates as “elderly” when they reach their fiftieth birthday, state laws only consider the victim of a crime “elderly” when they are 65 years or older. Only the Governor has the authority to stop the injustice of Panella’s early release, and we will make every effort to convince the Governor that justice is not served, nor public safety protected by the early release of a child torturer and murderer.”
Here is a look at the changes to the legislation that helped Panella secure an "elderly parole."