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former CHP denied parole four more years

Panel reviews '86 Cara Knott slaying

UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

 

February 1, 2008

 

Craig Peyer was denied parole for four more years yesterday at an emotional hearing where the graying and paunchy former California Highway Patrol officer said he would profess he was innocent of the 1986 murder of Cara Knott “to my last breath.”

The decision by the state Board of Parole Hearings is the second time Peyer has been denied parole since he was convicted in 1988. His first chance came four years ago. In both hearings, commissioners said he was unsuited for parole because he still posed a risk to the community.

Commissioner Robert Doyle also cited the brutality of the killing. Knott, 20, was bludgeoned and strangled, and her body was dumped near what is now the Scripps Poway Parkway exit off Interstate 15 on Dec. 27, 1986. Doyle said the killing “was committed with an exceptional disregard for human suffering.”

During the 3½-hour hearing at the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo, Cara Knott's sisters, Cynthia and Cheryl, urged the board to keep Peyer in prison. Peyer also spoke to Doyle and Commissioner Rolando Mejia, but even as he insisted several times that he was innocent, he would not talk about details of the crime or his case.

Inmates have the right to do that at parole hearings, but his words seemed to work against him. Doyle said Peyer lacked an understanding of his behavior and said his failure to engage in prison programs that would allow him to explore that worked against him.

“We were looking for some insight here,” Doyle said. “We did not get it.”

Peyer, divorced from his third wife,received several letters in support of parole. The board's decision means he will remain at the prison where he has been for nearly two decades. He has a nearly unblemished prison record and works as an electrician at the facility.

Peyer, a CHP officer for 13 years, said he felt betrayed by the criminal justice system he worked in.

“I put my faith in the system,” he said in response to a question from Mejia about not taking responsibility for the crime. “It's hard when you realize the system failed you.”

Comments like that made an emotional hearing for the Knott sisters even more difficult. They were the last to speak at the hearing, and during the time Peyer was answering questions from the commissioners or his own lawyer, their faces displayed a range of emotions.

At times Cynthia Knott stared, hard and unblinking, down the small conference table around which Peyer, the commissioners and the family members sat. Cheryl Knott avoided looking at Peyer for long stretches, but when she did, she had the same look as her sister.

When details of the crime were recounted, their faces fell and tears welled in their eyes. When it was their turn to speak, they urged the board to keep Peyer locked away.

“He took the joy from our family and left us in ruin,” Cynthia Knott said. “He should remain in prison forever.”

Cara Knott's mother, Joyce, who came to the 2004 hearing, was unable to attend yesterday. She is ill, but after the decision was announced the sisters phoned her from inside the prison.


After the hearing, Cheryl Knott said most of Peyer's comments were self-serving and showed no regard for the damage he caused.

“He's turning it around and trying to make himself the victim,” she said. “Cara is the victim.”

Days after Cara Knott's body was found, investigators focused on Peyer. Many women came forward to complain of unsettling encounters they had when the CHP officer pulled them over at the same deserted location and spoke to them – sometimes for as long as an hour.

After two trials – a jury deadlocked after the first – Peyer was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

Sam Knott, Cara's father, worked vigorously for victims' rights and measures to reform law enforcement procedures. In 2000, he died near the garden of oak trees that had been planted as a memorial to his daughter. The garden is close to the spot where her body was found, and he had tended the grove regularly.

When Peyer appears in front of the board in 2012, the parole policy in the state could be vastly different. The board's consistent denials of parole for nearly all life-term inmates is under increased scrutiny.

In recent years, inmates and their lawyers have turned to the courts, alleging the board was not following state laws.

In August, a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge ruled the parole board's decision-making process for inmates serving life terms was “malfunctioning.”

Judge Linda Condron said the board was issuing boilerplate decisions that “do not contain any explanation or thoughtful reasoning.”

The judge found that parole was denied based on one factor – the heinous nature of the crime. Doyle cited that factor as a basis for denying Peyer parole yesterday.


Greg Moran: (619) 542-4586; This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

 
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