BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — For more than two decades, Tammy Bell has lived with the pain of losing her infant son to violence.
She believed the man convicted of torturing and beating her child to death would spend the rest of his life behind bars.
So Bell was stunned earlier this week when the Board of Parole Hearings recommended 50-year-old Michael Todd Panella be released from prison.
Bell, 45, attended Tuesday’s hearing. She said Panella spoke for two hours and described in detail the torture slaying of Johnathan Bell.
The board returned its decision seven minutes after she spoke against his release.
“I was disgusted,” Bell said through tears Thursday morning as she protested the board’s decision outside the downtown courthouse. “I felt like my son was let down. Justice wasn’t served right. I couldn’t believe my ears. I just, I just fell, I just fell to my knees.”
“It’s beyond words,” she said.
Bell and family members are collecting signatures to send to Gov. Gavin Newsom in the hope he’ll overrule the parole board’s decision.
Panella’s pending release is partly a result of amendments passed by the state legislature that in 2020 reduced requirements for “elderly parole.” An inmate now qualifies if they are at least 50 and have served 20 years of their sentence.
Previously, the law required inmates to be at least 60 and serve a minimum of 25 years of their sentence.
Panella has served 20 years of his 25-years-to-life sentence.
District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer blasted the parole board’s decision, saying justice isn’t served by returning a child torturer and murderer to the streets. She said the changes to the law allow inmates to be considered for elderly parole before they even qualify for a senior discount at McDonald’s.
“Years ago, the parole board did not recommend parole for murderers,” Zimmer told 17 News. “They did not. But with Governor Newsom, he gets to appoint the parole board. So with the attitudes with Governor Newsom and his appointees and the changes in the law we see murderers being paroled now fairly frequently.”
Zimmer said parole has a place for certain people. She said someone who makes a terrible mistake and does everything they can to reform should be given an opportunity.
But some crimes are so horrific the offender should remain locked up, she said.
“He tortured this baby, this infant over a weeks’ period of time,” Zimmer said.
Bell and Panella began dating in 1999. Shortly afterward, she began noticing bruises on Johnathan.
Panella refused to let her use his truck to take Johnathan to a hospital, according to a summary of the case contained in appellate court documents. He told her Johnathan would be taken from her.
On Nov. 27, 1999, Bell left Johnathan with Panella in the afternoon while she went “to find some methamphetamine,” according to the documents. She testified Panella asked her to get the drugs, and if she had obtained the meth she also would have taken some.
Bell returned around 7 p.m. to find Johnathan in bed, apparently sleeping.
She left again and returned a few hours later, the documents say. She got in bed with Johnathan about midnight and reached for him. His body was cold and hard.
Bell screamed and called 911. Law enforcement arrived and Jonathan was pronounced dead at the scene, the documents say. Panella was arrested.
At least 50 bruises were found on Johnathan’s body, and it was determined he suffered severe blunt force trauma that caused internal bleeding. His small bowel was twisted and torn, the documents say.
“The mechanism of death was dehydration and internal hemorrhage,” according to the documents. “The force utilized to cause these injuries was extreme or severe. The abdominal bruises were consistent with multiple fist blows.”
Evidence was presented at trial that Panella disagreed with Bell on how to discipline her older son, Alex, who was 5 at the time. It also was alleged Panella was angry with Bell because she let Johnathan sleep with them.
Bell had packed her bags and was planning to move out the day before Johnathan’s death.
“From this the jury could have inferred that the defendant had a cold-blooded revengeful intent to inflict pain on Johnathan for the personal satisfaction of causing emotional pain to Tammy,” the documents say.
Jail informants said they overheard Panella bragging he would get away with murder, “just like O.J. Simpson,” and that he admitted he “killed the little bastard,” the court filings say.
Additionally, it’s alleged Panella told a witness also in custody and who he knew would testify against him that she would be “taken care of” if she didn’t change her story.
A jury found Panella guilty of first-degree murder and assault of a child under 8 resulting in death.