Disabled California Prisoner Dies One Week Before His Scheduled Release Under the California Compassionate Release Law

Terminally ill, convicted murderer, Carl Wade passed away in Vacaville State Prison last week. Wade’s death has given rise to discussions about “compassionate release” laws as well as the possible equal protection constitutional questions they raise.

The Facts
Carl Wade was convicted for the first-degree murder of a roommate in 1986 and sentenced to 32 years to life in prison. Wade has been in state prison ever since. In 2007 he was classified as disabled and was recommended for release under the California compassionate release law. Almost a week before he was scheduled to be released, Carl Wade, 66, died in prison.

The Law
Both California and the federal government recognize compassionate release of prisoners under certain circumstances. Under 18 U.S.C. ยง 3582(c), a court may release a prisoner if there is a compelling and extraordinary reason to do so. Also if a prisoner is over 70 years of age and has served at least 30 years, the prisoner may be released early if it is determined that he or she is no longer a danger to people or the community.

Under California Penal Code Section 1170(e)(2), a court may resentence or recall a sentence if it finds that (1) a physician has determined that a prisoner is terminally ill and has six months or less to live, (2) the release conditions are such that the prisoner will not pose a threat to others or the community, and (3) the prisoner is permanently incapacitated and requires 24-hour care, and was not in this condition when he or she was initially incarcerated. Not all three conditions must be met, but either the first and second or the second and third must be met. The release provisions of this section do not apply to prisoners who have been sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The Constitutional Question
Many have been asking whether compassionate release is unjust. Some are even going as far as claiming that compassionate release affords terminally ill patients greater protection under the law than healthy prisoners. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees individuals and groups equal protection under the law. This means that the state must treat an individual in the same way that it treats other individuals under similar circumstances and conditions.

Many attorneys argue that compassionate release can be afforded to any aging prisoner, since an aging prisoner would likely meet either conditions 1 and 2 or 2 and 3 above at some point close to the end of their lives. However, this may also raise equal protection questions regarding younger prisoners who have served an equal amount of time, but are not eligible for compassionate release because they are either too young or too healthy.


Disagreement about proper sentencing and release rules has raged for decades. At the end of the day, ensuring that sentences are handed down fairly requires criminal defendants to have the help of legal professionals throughout the process. If you are in our area, contact the experienced California criminal defense attorneys at the Johnson Criminal Law Group to seek out help.