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?
A fatal ambush
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 good-bye. 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 Mercereau 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,” Mercereau 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.
‘This has to stick’
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 teenaged 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.”
‘Too damned long’
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 that 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’s spokesman Evan Westrup said after Brown signed the bill.
After his 2014 reelection, 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.”
A plea for mercy
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.
‘What was humane?’
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.
Cover photo of the guard station at San Quentin Prison by Penni Gladstone for CALmatters.