3 Strikes Hits Home Run with High Court Support

By Michael Doyle
Bee Washington BureauPublished 03/06/03 04:45:12

WASHINGTON — A divided Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld California’s long prison terms for repeat offenders in the most important test to date of the state’s “Three Strikes and You’re Out” sentencing rules.

By 5-4 margins in two related cases, the conservative-dominated court concluded California’s Three Strikes measure does not violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

By 5-4 margins in two related cases, the conservative-dominated court concluded California’s Three Strikes measure does not violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“Nothing in the Eighth Amendment prohibits California from making that choice.”

This means Gary Albert Ewing will now serve at least 25 years in prison for stealing $1,197 worth of golf clubs from a Southern California course, unless he dies first from the AIDS virus that has blinded him in one eye.

It means repeat burglar Leandro Andrade will serve up to 50 years for stealing $153 worth of videotapes from two Southern California Kmart stores.

More broadly, the opinions mean the federal government and 25 states in addition to California will keep their own variations of the Three Strikes sentencing law. California’s version requires prison sentences of at least 25 years for those previously convicted of two “serious” or “violent” felonies.

The 5-4 vote was “just as solid of a law as it would been as a unanimous vote,” said Mike Reynolds of Fresno.

The 1992 murder of his daughter, Kimber, led him to the idea for the Three Strikes law.

“I think this was not only a tremendous judgment on Three Strikes, it also affirmed states’ independent rights to set their own penalties and make their own laws,” Reynolds said. “States have to have that protection.”

The law was passed by voters in 1994 as Proposition 184

A criticism of the law was that it was not flexible, but Reynolds said judges have latitude to reduce sentences of third-strike offenders.

Fresno’s Bill Jones, who was the legislation’s author in the state Assembly, said he was pleased that the Supreme Court upheld the law.

“We encourage other states to follow California’s lead and adopt identical legislation as soon as possible,” he said.

Jones said that in the first seven years after Three Strikes went into effect, California’s crime rate declined 42.1% — more than any other state and twice the rate of crime reduction in the rest of the country.

O’Connor, who wrote the court’s opinion in both California cases, stressed that “we do not sit as a ‘superlegislature’ ” to second-guess such political decisions.

“To be sure, Ewing’s sentence is a long one,” O’Connor stated. “But it reflects a rational legislative judgment, entitled to deference, that offenders who have committed serious or violent felonies and who continue to commit felonies must be incapacitated.”

The court broke along what has become a common fault line, with Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and O’Connor agreeing to uphold the prison terms.

Another familiar theme recurred as the court dominated by Republican appointees overturned, in the Andrade case, a decision by the considerably more liberal 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The San Francisco-based appellate court had termed Andrade’s sentence cruel and unusual.

In reversing the 9th Circuit, though, the Supreme Court could not find a common rationale.

Only Rehnquist and Kennedy joined O’Connor’s plurality opinion, meaning they agreed both with her conclusion and her reasoning. Scalia and Thomas asserted a stricter view that the Eighth Amendment offers no guarantee that sentences even be proportional to crimes in non-death-penalty cases.

Justices John Paul Stevens, Stephen Breyer, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were in the minority, as they have been on many of the most important cases decided by the Rehnquist court.

“I believe that the case before us is a ‘rare’ case — one in which a court can say with reasonable confidence that the punishment is ‘grossly disproportionate’ to the crime,” Breyer wrote in his dissenting opinion in the Ewing case.

Breyer, taking the noteworthy step of reading a summary of his dissent from the bench, further added that Ewing’s sentence was two or three times longer than what he might have received in another state.

The attorneys for Ewing and Andrade likewise characterize the California sentence of 25 years as unjust and the court’s ruling as misguided.

“I’m just despondent,” said Quin Denvir, who presented Ewing’s case as the chief federal public defender for the Eastern District of California. “I have a very visceral reaction to this. If the opinion had gone the other way, it would mean Gary Ewing would have a life.”

“I’m just despondent,” said Quin Denvir, who presented Ewing’s case as the chief federal public defender for the Eastern District of California. “I have a very visceral reaction to this. If the opinion had gone the other way, it would mean Gary Ewing would have a life.”

Ewing is serving his time at the California Medical Facility at Vacaville, while Andrade is in the state prison at Tehachapi, from which he is due to be released in 2046 at age 87.

Both men have spent much of their lives entangled in the criminal justice system.

Ewing first pleaded guilty to theft in 1984, at age 22, and he subsequently was convicted for a series of other crimes that included robbery with a knife. He was on probation in March 2000 when he attempted to steal the golf clubs from the El Segundo Golf Course.

A longtime heroin addict, Andrade had been in and out of state prison since 1982. His final arrest came in 1995 after he twice attempted to steal videotapes from Kmart.

Return to the SCOTUS decision index