SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A state panel recommended parole for a Northern California transgender inmate on May 21, a decision that could keep her from receiving the prison-funded sex reassignment surgery she says is necessary for her emotional health.
Michelle-Lael Norsworthy is no longer dangerous and should be freed, a pair of parole commissioners decided after a hearing. Norsworthy, 51, has served 28 years in prison for a second-degree murder conviction from Orange County.
The decision sets up a race to see if Norsworthy, who was born a man and has lived as a woman since the 1990s, gets the surgery before she is paroled.
The state Board of Parole Hearings now has 120 days to review the commissioners’ recommendation. If it is upheld, Gov. Jerry Brown will have another 30 days to intervene.
U.S. District Court Judge Jon Tigar of San Francisco ruled last month that Norsworthy’s civil rights are being violated and ordered the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to provide her with the sex reassignment surgery as soon as possible.
The surgery currently is scheduled for July 1, but corrections officials are asking the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to delay the operation while it considers the state’s appeal of Tigar’s order, a process that could take months.
She could have the surgery July 1 if the court doesn’t intervene, and be paroled later this year. But if the stay is granted, she could be paroled before the appeals court considers her case.
Norsworthy is being held at Mule Creek State Prison, a men’s prison in Ione, near Sacramento. Prison records still refer to her by her birth name of Jeffrey Bryan Norsworthy.
Her attorneys in the surgery case and the state-appointed attorney who represented her at the parole hearing did not immediately comment.
Orange County Senior Deputy District Attorney Ray Armstrong opposed her release, arguing that she has not taken responsibility for the murder of 26-year-old Franklin Gordon Liefer Jr. after an argument in a Fullerton bar in November 1985. Norsworthy, then 21, shot Liefer three times; he died six weeks later. Armstrong said Norsworthy initially claimed that the weapon fired accidentally, and later contended that she had not intended to kill Liefer.
State officials suggested in court filings that Norsworthy had delayed her parole hearings so she would still be eligible for the surgery and related treatments, which officials have estimated could cost as much as $100,000.
Norsworthy’s attorneys said the estimate is exaggerated, and that if their client is paroled she would be eligible for Medi-Cal, which covers medically necessary sex reassignment surgeries.
Norsworthy said in court documents that she has felt distress and anxiety since adolescence of as a result of gender dysphoria but only realized she needed sex reassignment surgery while she was in prison. She was diagnosed with gender identity disorder in 1999 and began taking female hormones.
She began asking the corrections department for the surgery in 2012 after learning a judge for the first time had ordered Massachusetts to provide an inmate with the procedure. However, that decision was overturned on appeal in December, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene.