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deserves the heavy sentence he or she is getting-even if the third felony might be considered a misdemeanor under different circumstances. Most prosecutors don't have a problem with convicting at least some nonviolent third offenders, although sentiment does vary geographically. In Los Angeles, for example, almost any defendant who can be charged under three strikes will be. In San Francisco, however, giving someone a strike for a nonviolent third offense is rare. Most other counties fall somewhere in between, charging nonviolent third offenders on a case-by-case basis.
When justifying why they prosecute nonviolent third offenses, prosecutors point to a variety of circumstances. Some say that many criminals who served ridiculously light sentences before the law was enacted are finally being reasonably punished. Others believe the law allows them to prevent crime. For example, Mann County Deputy District Attorney Kevin Jones recalls a case in which a defendant with a long history of rape convictions told the court his attacks on women coincided with his cocaine use. So when he was caught with the drug in an area where women were known to jog, prosecutors felt a third strike was justified. "After thorough consideration we concluded that public safety permitted, even mandated, that this defendant be prosecuted under three strikes," says Jones. Some prosecutors also point out that before three strikes, small-time criminals already served life sentences in installments, with multiple lesser sentences. Now they are simply paying up front.
We've asked prosecutors to zero in on specific examples of third-strike cases to explain why cookie theft, failure to appear, and other relatively minor crimes can be considered third-strike offenses.
Jerry Dewayne Williams
3rd Strike Theft of a slice of pizza
Sentence: 25 years to life, reduced to 6
On a warm evening in July 1994 Jerry Williams was having a few drinks and relaxing on the Redondo Beach pier. After he and a friend had bought some slices of pizza, they noticed a group of kids dining on an extra-large pepperoni pie and demanded some of theirs. The oldest child refused, but Williams and his friend each took a piece anyway. The friend got away, but Williams was arrested in a nearby arcade after the pizza shop owner called the police. The Los Angeles District Attorney charged Williams with robbery, saying he used intimidation to scare the kids. In the end, the jury hung on the robbery charge but convicted Williams of petty theft with priors, netting him a 25 years to life sentence. Deputy Public Defender Arnold T. Lester filed a defense motion that argued the sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Superior Court Judge Donald F. Pitts denied the motion but later, after Romero, reduced the sentence to six years. People v Williams, Cr No.YA 020612-01.
The Prosecution: "I didn't think the judge would do it," says prosecutor Bill Gravlin, referring to the sentence reduction. "Three strikes," he says, "is supposed to deal with recidivist criminals." And Williams had earlier charges for robbery, attempted robbery, unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, and possession of a controlled substance. "[Williams] ripped off four defenseless little kids," adds Gravlin. "The youngest was only seven." During the trial Gravlin asked the seven-year-old to stand next to the six-foot five-inch Williams to try to prove the robbery charge that didn't stick. "This was his fifth adult conviction and the second time he'd gotten caught using the threat of force," says Gravlin. But even though the pizza thievery was bad enough, Gravlin says, "It's wrong to focus just on the last offense. [Williams] was only 27 and had 14 years of criminal history. He is a habitual criminal. Some young people make mistakes and get better," adds Gravlin. "He just got worse."
Kevin Weber
3rd Strike Taking four chocolate chip cookies
Sentence: 26 years to life
Kevin Weber got his third strike while homeless and unemployed. His earlier offenses, however, occurred while he was working as a maintenance man at a local apartment complex. Using his master key he broke into one of the apartments twice. The first time, Weber made off with several firearms, When he broke in again, the apartment's resident, a police officer, was home and caught him in the act. Weber grabbed a .22 caliber pistol belonging to the policeman's roommate and, in an effort to escape, threatened to use it. Weber was charged with two counts of burglary and assault with a deadly weapon and went to prison for two years. He was released in 1990. In May 1995 Weber and some friends bought beer and tequila after a soup-kitchen dinner.Weber claims that he broke into Eric's Gazebo Restaurant in Santa Ana
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