Convicted killer granted parole in notorious Kern County case

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It’s a horribly sad story. The way the parole board heard it today: one young woman with a life of abuse and hardship was involved in the heinous murder of another young woman, a complete stranger.

It was December 1993. 19-year-old Diana Contreras was Christmas shopping at Valley Plaza Mall, making a payment on a necklace that was going to be a special gift to her mother. 

But Diana never had the chance to give her family their Christmas presents. When she was leaving the mall, she was forced into a car by then 23-year-old Mary Stroder. Stroder and her boyfriend, 23-year-old Charles Rountree, forced Contreras to withdraw money from several ATMs before Charles Rountree shot her to death.

After the murder, Rountree told detectives that killing the girl was his decision and Stroder played no role in it. But in the end, both were convicted of murder, robbery, and kidnapping. Rountree was sentenced to death row where he remains today. Stroder was given life without the possibility of parole, destined to die behind bars.

But that all changed this August when Governor Jerry Brown announced he was commuting Stroder’s sentence, meaning he switched her sentence to life *with* the possibility of parole. Governor Brown cited psychologists’ claims that Stroder was really a victim herself, someone who grew up abused and neglected by her parents and was in numerous abusive relationships. A 2009 psychological evaluation concluded Stroder didn’t share the intent of her “murderous and mentally ill” boyfriend, but rather she was too emotionally immobilized to resist him.

But the Contreras family sees Stroder as anything but a victim. “My life sentence is waking up for the past 23 and a half years without my sister who would have done something with her life and not have used her bad childhood to do wrong and bad things and her life sentence should be where she’s at. I think that that’s fair. You take a life, you’re life should be in prison, where you should spend the remainder of your life”, said Melissa Hernandez, the sister of Diana Contreras. 

The family of Diana Contreras is devastated by today’s outcome and even came to the hearing with a petition signed by 7,000 people asking for Stroder to not be released. On the other hand, the Governor’s office says there was also a petition on Stroder’s behalf that also had about 7,000 signatures. 

Though the parole board decided today that Mary Stroder should be paroled-she isn’t free to go. Over the next 120 days, the parole board will review everything to make sure there aren’t any legal issues they overlooked. Then Governor Jerry Brown has 30 days to decide if he wants to uphold the decision, reverse it, modify it, or take no action. 

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