Patterico's Pontifications

11/7/2004

L.A. Times Perpetuates the Myth of the Pizza Thief Serving 25-to-Life

Filed under: Crime,Dog Trainer,No on 66 — Patterico @ 11:10 am

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.

35 Responses to “L.A. Times Perpetuates the Myth of the Pizza Thief Serving 25-to-Life”

  1. Today, I found the article about the push for No on Prop 66 interesting. Talk about last minute plans! Actually, the fact that it came out so late and seemingly out of nowhere might have made it more effective. The other side was not prepared for it. Hell, we weren’t prepared for it. Seeing all those governor’s names on the ads – republican and democrat, was powerful.

    julie (e93268)

  2. So I can’t recruit you to write Jamie Gold?

    I don’t think I can deal with the likely sophistry I’d get in response, or I’d do it myself.

    Plus, I think they’re getting tired of hearing from me.

    Patterico (756436)

  3. If I do, is there any way my name will be publicized? Since, I’m dependent on others to receive work, I always worry about being kicked out of the tribe.

    julie (e93268)

  4. I won’t publicize it. Heck, I don’t even know it. I don’t think the Times considers complaints to the Reader’s Rep to be for publication. So I think you’re safe. Just remove your real name from any correspondence you publish here, write your e-mail, and brace yourself for the incoming sophistry.

    Patterico (756436)

  5. Excuse me, Pat, but even you are perpetuating a myth… the myth that the “pizza guy” merely “swiped a slice of pizza.”

    In fact, he approached a group of middle schoolers and threatened them with violence unless they gave him the pizza they had just bought.

    It was a robbery, not a petty theft; he is a big man, and he loomed over a small group of kids and terrified them into giving him their food (he wasn’t starving, either).

    This WAS a crime of violence… and he deserved to spend the rest of his life behind bars, God damn it.

    Dafydd

    Dafydd (df2f54)

  6. I follow you — but your version of events hasn’t been proved. A jury hung on the robbery charge. So, while I am sympathetic to your viewpoint that his crime has been understated, I am doing my best to cleave to the facts that I can prove — and I would like the Times to do the same.

    You’re an articulate fellow. Want to take a crack at writing the Readers’ Rep? Just because I’m not doing it this time doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t like to see it done . . .

    Patterico (756436)

  7. Who’s the diaper thief they are always referring to? The only person I can find sentenced under three strikes who stole diapers did so by burglarizing a daycare center and had 5 residential burg strike priors.

    I also saw something Mike Reynolds wrote about other states that require the third strike to be a violent crime do not enforce it. Consequently, it has had no effect on the crime rate. Do you know anything about that? Just currious.

    julie (e93268)

  8. I think you have the right diaper thief.

    I think you are also correct that other states really don’t enforce their three strikes laws. This point is made in the opening sentences of this study:

    Many states have recently enacted three-strikes laws to increase punishment for frequent offenders. However, only California actively enforces its three-strikes legislation.

    The study concludes that California’s strike law has had an enormous deterrent effect.

    Patterico (756436)

  9. I’m sorry, but there is enough nuance going on with this issue to gag even John Kerry. If someone with two strikes so much as goes out in public with mis-matched sox, I want that idiot put away for life. I don’t want anyone that stupid to be breathing the same air that I do.

    The Old Coot (48c30c)

  10. Yes yes, you’re very amusing. At least this is an issue I’m interested in!

    Michael Williams (ea3f6c)

  11. To all: Michael did a post complaining about trackbacks without links to his post. I sent a trackback to it from this post, even though I don’t link to his post in this one.

    That’s what he’s talking about.

    Yes, I am a smart-ass.

    Patterico (756436)

  12. RE: A Three-Strikes Fix Isn’t Dead

    Dear Ms. Gold:

    Quoting today’s above entitled editorial:

    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.

    Yes, everyone has heard the stories. But what everyone should hear from the LAT is that Jerry DeWayne Williams, the infamous pizza thief, served only 6 years.

    As with the enactment of all new laws, it’s up to the courts to interpret how they should be applied. When Three Strikes first passed, it was uncertain whether prosecutors or the courts still retained discretion to dismiss a strike in the interest of justice. The California Supreme Court determined that they did. (People v. Superior Court (Romero) (1996) 13 Cal.4th 497.)

    Though the LAT is aware that Williams is not serving a life sentence, your editorial gives the false impression that he is unjustly serving a life sentence. This should be corrected.

    If the LAT expects honest discussion about the possibility of reform of the Three Strikes Laws, it is imperative that the LAT be truthful in its representation of the facts.

    Sincerely,

    julie (9abaa5)

  13. Awesome. I assume you’ll keep us up to date on the response?

    It’s so much better for my blood pressure for other people to do this sort of thing . . .

    Patterico (756436)

  14. My prediction is something along these lines:

    Dear Julie,

    Thank you for your note.

    The Times never claimed that Mr. Williams is still serving a life sentence under the Three Strikes law, but the fact remains that he was initially sentenced to 25-to-life. The editors were simply making the point that such a sentence is inappropriate for such a petty crime. I’ll let the editors know that you think such a sentence is appropriate for swiping a slice of pizza.

    Sincerely,

    Jamie Gold
    Readers’ Representative

    Your results may vary. We’ll see how it plays out.

    Thank you for keeping my blood pressure low. I have a family history of heart disease, and even at the tender age of 36, I have to keep an eye on these things.

    Patterico (756436)

  15. “I follow you — but your version of events hasn’t been proved. A jury hung on the robbery charge.”

    Pat, they hung on the charge, but nobody disputed the facts. The jury simply refused to do its duty… they couldn’t bring themselves to say that a big man walking brazenly up to a group of pre-teens, glaring at them, leaning over and demanding their pizza was a robbery, not shoplifting.

    This is, alas, not uncommon. As I recall the assault against Reginald Denny, the jury convicted Damien Monroe “Football” Williams of ADW for picking up a huge chunk of concrete and heaving it into Denny’s head… but they deadlocked 11-1 or somesuch on attempted murder.

    Got that? The jury agreed that he hurled a chunk of concrete into the head of Denny, already lying in a heap on the pavement, but they just couldn’t bring themselves to call that attempted murder. (And the LAPD didn’t even charge Williams with a hate crime, either).

    I find that almost more objectionable than some soft-hearted, soft-headed judge discounting strikes in order to put career thugs back on the streets: yeah, we believe he tried to crush the dude’s skull, but we’re not sure he meant to kill him!

    To me, that smacks of a bartered verdict: one guy was going to vote not-guilty and force a mistrial, so the rest of the jurors cut a deal with him to go for a lesser verdict.

    Same with the pizza guy, probably: the jury played Let’s Make a Deal in the jury room.

    Dafydd

    Dafydd (df2f54)

  16. I can’t really disagree, except that we don’t know for sure that the jurors voting not guilty on the robbery didn’t dispute the facts.

    Don’t get me wrong: my guess is that they were voting not guilty for improper reasons, and everything I have ever heard about the case suggests that it was, in fact, a robbery. We probably agree about this more than you know.

    Patterico (756436)

  17. In your heart, you know I’m right, Pat! [G]

    I really think your colleagues are not doing your jobs, especially here in California. From the ludicrous McMartin trial (where clearly innocent people were put through hell on the basis of manufactured testimony); to the second corrupt trial of the officers who arrested Rodney King (cops just doing their duty who were put through hell after being lawfully acquitted for the same actions); to the Damien Williams trial (op.cit.); to the pizza guy’s trial (op.cit); to the first OJ trial (a guilty man was set free due to incredible incompetence, starting with Gil Garcetti’s decision to change the venue to downtown LA, the botched jury selection, and the inability to keep the trial moving — I still think if Darden and Clarke had skipped the strong DNA evidence and just focused on blood typing, the partisan jury would have had less excuse to acquit)…

    The common thread here seems to be jaw-droppingly bad decisions made by prosecutors and the inability to keep cases simple and clear.

    I thought the plaintiffs’ attorneys in the second OJ trial did a much better job: the trial was quick and convincing, and I believe they even got a unanimous verdict in the liability phase, though the jury had one defector in the damages phase — am I misremembering?

    But how many months did Darden & Clarke spend futilely trying to explain DNA testing to jurors that they had deliberately selected to be scientific ignoramuses?

    Dafydd

    Dafydd (df2f54)

  18. Sorry, that first sentence should read “your colleagues are not doing their jobs;” I’m sure you’re far and away better than the doofuses I’m discussing above — especially Gil Garcetti.

    (I even did “Preview” and edited it… and failed to notice the typo!)

    Dafydd

    Dafydd (df2f54)

  19. Hmm. Since they are not agreeing to a correction, I think they are blowing me off. Response from LAT:

    Thanks for writing. I get your point about the time that Jerry Williams eventually served being different from the 25-to-life sentence that he originally received and I’m passing it on to opinion-page editors.

    I suggest you send your comments to letters@latimes.com so that others might see it as well.

    Kent Zelas
    Asst. Readers’ Representative

    julie (9abaa5)

  20. Julie, I got an almost identical response:

    Thanks for writing. I get your point about the time that Jerry Williams eventually served for his petty theft being different from the 25-to-life sentence that he originally received under three-strikes law, and I’m passing it on to opinion-page editors.

    I suggest you send your comments to letters@latimes.com so that others might see it as well.

    Kent Zelas
    Asst. Readers’ Representative

    Xrlq (6c76c4)

  21. Re: the Williams Pizza Thief…

    the misinformation as continued by the LA Times aside, seems like their basic point (as noted earlier) may still be valid, in that Williams was initially sentenced to 25-life, but upon review that was lowered to 6 years. But I do not see any reference to why the review was initiated.

    Perhaps, from a purely economic viewpoint, putting DeWayne away for for 25 yrs x $31,000/yr = $775K, whereas only putting him away for 6 yrs = $186K. Taxpayers should be relieved that they are now saving $589K thanks to the judicial discretion of the judge (and prosecutor?). The $189K seems quite reasonable for the crime of pizza thievery (or pizza assault).

    cfcboc (494d1f)

  22. “For his petty theft.”

    There is almost nothing more humiliating than somebody just walking up, looking you in the eye, reaching over and taking something of yours, then walking off with a smirk.

    But to the Assistant Reader’s Representative of the LA Times, this is just exactly the same as some kid swiping a candy bar from 7-11 when the manager isn’t looking. Hey, same thing!

    I note again… Jerry DeWayne Williams never claimed that he waited until nobody was looking and just shoplifted the pizza; the jury had no evidence before it that this was theft without personal contact: that the jury convicted for theft necessarily means they found that Williams reached over in plain view and took the pizza, defying any of those children to object or even say a word. Good god, wasn’t anybody here ever victimized by a violent, frightening bully in junior high? One of those eighth graders who had been held back three or four times and had a five o’clock shadow by the end of the school day?

    The first judge clearly understood what the jury had done and what the crime really was; that’s why he counted it as a third strike and gave Willims 25 to bye-bye. He was absolutely right: Williams is going to hurt someone again, and again and again.

    Dafydd

    Dafydd (df2f54)

  23. cfcboc:
    All defendants have the right to appeal. While Williams’ appeal was pending, the California Supreme Court decided another case, Romero, that says the enactment of Three Strikes did not remove the discretion of a trial court to dismiss a strike in the interest of justice. The trial court did not believe it had that discretion when it sentenced Williams. Once Romero was decided, Williams’ case was transferred back to the trial court, a strike was dismissed, and he was resentenced.

    Dafydd:
    Williams was charged in the alternative with the felony of petty theft with a prior theft conviction. The judge wrongly believed he had no choice but to sentence him as a third strike. When the case was sent back to the trial court for resentencing, the trial judge exercised his discretion and dismissed a strike in the interest of justice.

    Judges can not dismiss strikes because they feel like it. There has to be specific and legitimate reasons in doing so and they must be read into the court transcript.

    julie (9abaa5)

  24. Xrlq:
    Shall we go down to First Street and pickett?

    julie (9abaa5)

  25. Julie, please explain to me — in English, not legalese — why what Williams did was not, in normal speech, “robbery” (theft with deliberate contact) but merely “petty theft.”

    “Because that’s what he was charged with” is not an acceptable response: somewhere, some judge decided, on his or her own discretion, to remove that third strike. God Himself did not come down from heaven and order it done; it was a human being.

    Regardless of all this sophistry, what Williams did was to frighten and intimidate a group of children into giving him the food they had just bought for themselves. Are you going to deny it?

    A judge had the authority to keep him in prison for 25-life, and that judge chose not to do so. However you spin it, that is the underlying fact.

    Dafydd

    Dafydd (df2f54)

  26. Dafydd:
    I wasn’t at the trial, so I did not hear the witnesses testify. Nor did I speak to the jurors and find out why they hung on the robbery. I can guess, but I see no point to it.

    Regardless of whether Williams scared children or not, he was not found guilty of a robbery.

    For the trial court not to dismiss the strike may have also been an abuse of discretion and a legal error. Again, I wasn’t in court. I did not hear the testimony or read the probation report. I’m not privy to any of the mitigating factors. I did not hear the arguments of counsel.

    I do know that before three strikes, this guy would have gotten a much lighter sentence. Instead, he was sentenced under the Two Strikes law which means his sentence was doubled and he served at least 80% of the time before eligible for parole.

    You have assumed Williams deserved 25 years to life. However, I don’t think the DA knew it had the discretion to not charge it as a three strike case. On review, the California Supreme Court and the trial judge did not think it warranted 25 years to life. Since, they are the ones most knowledgeable of the facts, I am going to trust them.

    julie (9abaa5)

  27. Folks,

    Allow me to print the text of an e-mail sent by Kent Zelas to a reader of mine who wishes to remain anonymous (initials P.H.), who wrote to complain about the editorial’s misrepresentation:

    Thanks for writing. I get your point about the time that Jerry Williams eventually served being different from the 25-to-life sentence that he originally received and I’m passing it on to opinion-page editors.

    I suggest you send your comments to letters@latimes.com so that others might see it as well.

    Kent Zelas
    Asst. Readers’ Representative

    Just to save you the effort of performing the comparison yourself, I’ll tell you that this is word-for-word the response that Julie received.

    How come Xrlq gets a unique and personalized response with four additional words? And how come he didn’t share his original e-mail with us? And will any of our three readers ever hear another word about this, or is Zelas’s canned response the last word on the matter?

    Many questions. Few answers.

    Patterico (756436)

  28. Julie, if you’re not a lawyer, you ought to be!

    Your response consists of the admission that you didn’t attend the trial — followed by the complete abdication of judgment and reliance upon the judges involve, despite the fact that the main charge is that the judges bent over backwards to put this man back on the streets. After which, you are at great pains to let us know that you cannot have any opinion about any current event unless it’s in the form of a law-review article.

    There is a time for being non-judgmental, and there is a time for judging. Close the casebooks, stand up, and be counted, Ms. Julie! Tell us what you think, not what the judge ruled at the trial.

    Dafydd

    Dafydd (df2f54)

  29. Dafydd, I think you’re reaching. Yes, it probably was a robbery. No, the jury didn’t convict him on that. For better or for worse, they hung on that charge and convicted him of mere larceny. I don’t think there is anything odd about the judge treating the crime as the one he was convicted for rather than as the one he probably committed but wasn’t convicted for. If you’re going to be mad at anybody, be mad at the jury for failing to convict him of robbery.

    Xrlq (6d213c)

  30. “How come Xrlq gets a unique and personalized response with four additional words? And how come he didn’t share his original e-mail with us?”

    Can’t speak to the four additional words, except to say that my response came at 12:18 p.m., which was almost an hour before Julie posted the reply she got. If mine was the original version, I suppose Zelas might have gotten a flood of “whaddya mean, ‘petty’ theft?!” responses from earlier readers, and figured it was easier just to take those four words out of the canned response that wuold be sent to others.

    Here’s my original message:

    Subject: factual errors in three strikes editorial

    Yesterday’s editorial on Prop 66 grossly misstates two key facts about Jerry DeWayne Williams, a.k.a. “the guy who swiped a slice of pizza,” and also severely misstates the impact of its re-sentencing provision. First, Williams’s third offense, like his priors no one wants to talk about, was anything but nonviolent. He didn’t simply snatch a slice of pizza while no one was looking; he bullied a group of small, frightened young children into handing over theirs, or else. Second, Williams is not among the 4,200 “nonviolent” offenders serving 25 to life, as you claim. His sentence was reduced to six years on appeal under the existing three strikes law, and he has been a free man for several years now.

    Later in the editorial, your staff claims that “some” of the 4,200 third strikers “would probably” have been released if Prop 66 passed. Once again, they are flat out wrong. Proposition 66 doesn’t “probably” release “some” criminals who qualify for resentencing; it requires it in all cases where it applies. While there is some doubt as to whether or not Prop 66 would have led to the release of 22,000 second-strikers, there is no question what its impact would have been on the 4,200 “nonviolent” third strikers to whom you refer. Had the initiative passed, every one of them who requested a resentencing hearing would have gotten his hearing, and every one of them would have been freed. To say they “probably” would have been released makes no more sense than saying the sun “probably” will come up tomorrow.

    Xrlq (e2795d)

  31. Actually, while every one of them would have been freed (because none would have a life sentence), not every one of them would have been freed immediately. Some might still have a long enough sentence, even after being resentenced, that they could still owe some time.

    Patterico (d82594)

  32. The editorial didn’t say “immediately,” and neither did I. What they did say was “Some who had already served years for nonserious or nonviolent crimes would probably have been released.”

    Xrlq (6d213c)

  33. I think the “immediately” was implied.

    Patterico (756436)

  34. I don’t. I didn’t take the editorial to mean that everyone would be let out on November 3, only that they would be released much sooner than their current sentences call for. More importantly, I took “some” and “probably” to imply that only some of the would get an early release, and even those only “probably” rather than definitely.

    Xrlq (e2795d)

  35. Peackeeping Action
    Stop fighting, you two.

    EDIT: You keep out of this, Patterico.

    Ubique Patriam Reminisci (465031)


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