The Bizarre Story of James Tramel

James Tramel of San Francisco illustrates one of the more serious aspects of the problems of teen killers in our society. Even when they appear to make a model recovery, things often go seriously wrong.

Mr. Tramel served two decades in prison for his role in a murder when he was 17 years old. He was convicted of 2nd degree murder and served a 15 years to life sentence, where he was ultimately paroled.

When he and others talked about his crime, passive tense and minimizing language was used. Examples: “Tramel was involved with a murder” instead of “Tramel was an accomplice to murder.” And we have yet to read anything where he takes full responsibility for his crime and its impact on the primary and secondary victims.

An Advocate for Teen Killers 

Upon his release he had become an Episcopalian Priest, and took up the ministry at a church in San Francisco. He became active against long terms of incarceration for teen killers, not surprisingly, and was honored by public praise for his reformed life and testifying before the California legislature in support of Senator Leland Yee’s bills attempting to retroactively end life sentences for teen killers (JLWOP – Juvenile Life Without Parole). Ending JLWOP and advocating for teen killers became a big part of his ministry.

But then scandal broke out in 2008 and the Episcopalian Church had to suspend him for sexual misconduct in his parish.

Episcopal Church Under Fire for Parolee Priest

Murderer who was ordained has been suspended for sexual misconduct with parishioner

July 18, 2008|By Matthai Kuruvila, San Francisco Chronicle Religion Writer

  • counseling James Tramel meets some of his parishioners. James Tramel has been imprisoned for 18 years for 2nd degree murder. While imprisoned Tramel was ordained, and reached Episcopal Church of the Good Shepard parishioners via telephone 4 times per year. Now Tramel is paroled, and meets in person his parishioners at a reception. Photo taken on 3/12/06, in BERKELEY, CA. By Katy Raddatz / The San Francisco Chronicle
  • Credit: Katy Raddatz

    James Tramel went from convicted murderer to priest while in prison, a transformation that the Episcopal Church used to successfully lobby for his parole and celebrate him before politicians and the press.

    But the church is now grappling with the sexual abuse of a parishioner under his care. Tramel has been suspended for sexual misconduct, temporarily stripped of his priestly authority and left searching for a new job.

    The San Francisco-based Episcopal Diocese of California now faces questions of whether, in its haste to proclaim Tramel’s story, it redeemed and promoted him too quickly.

    Convicted of second-degree murder in a 1985 slaying, Tramel went to seminary and was ordained a priest while incarcerated in a state prison in Solano County. After he was paroled early in 2006, at the urging of the Episcopal bishop of California, Tramel was quickly placed at the helm of the historic Trinity Episcopal Church in San Francisco.