This morning the L.A. Times editorializes:
Two dozen states and the federal government have passed “three strikes and you’re out” laws, but only in California can any felony, even a petty theft, trigger a 25-year-to-life sentence. Everyone has heard the stories — of the guy who swiped a slice of pizza and the father who pinched diapers for his kids. Of California’s 7,300 third-strikers, 4,200 are like these lifers, put away for relatively minor offenses. Their “three hots and a cot” cost taxpayers $31,000 a year each.
The only reasonable interpretation of this passage is that “the guy who swiped a slice of pizza” is currently serving life for that offense.
Not so. A 1996 decision of the California Supreme Court held that judges have discretion to dismiss strikes in appropriate cases, in the interests of justice. As this article explains:
In fact, the notorious “pizza thief” was a recipient of this discretion. [Jerry DeWayne] Williams, who was originally sentenced to an indeterminate life sentence, later had his sentence reduced to six years. Citing his nonviolent criminal history, lack of weapon use, and relatively minor third strike offense, the sentencing judge agreed to strike a prior conviction in order to promote the interest of justice.
The “pizza thief” case is actually an argument against modification of the Three Strikes law, as it demonstrates that existing judicial discretion can ameliorate the worst cases.
While I am sympathetic to the notion that the Three Strikes law needs modification, I would like to see the decision based on factual and truthful arguments. By suggesting that the pizza thief is serving life, when he is not, the Times is perpetuating an urban legend. This merits a correction.
The Reader’s Representative can be reached at Readers.Rep@latimes.com. Call me defeatist, but I’m not bothering to write her, even though this is a clear error. It’s a gut feeling, but I just don’t see them admitting error on this one. If you write her, please copy the text of your e-mail in the comments — and let us know any response you receive.