Patterico's Pontifications

12/2/2010

Los Angeles Times (Possibly) Errs in Describing Third Striker’s Record; UPDATE: And Possibly Not; NEW UPDATE: Definitely Not

Filed under: Crime,Dog Trainer — Patterico @ 8:14 pm



I am going to refrain from commenting on the following case except for noting evidence of a possible error by the Los Angeles Times. Here is the Times report:

To hear him tell his story, John Wesley Ewell was the victim of an overly harsh criminal justice system.

The South Los Angeles hairstylist complained to journalists over the last decade about the unfairness of the state’s tough three-strikes law, saying he lived in fear that even a small offense would land him back in prison for life.

He even appeared on the “The Montel Williams Show” to argue the case against three strikes. A caption that flashed on the screen when Ewell spoke read: “Afraid to leave his house because he has 2 ‘Strikes.'”

But Ewell is now charged with murdering four people in a series of home invasion robberies that terrorized the South Bay this fall. On Tuesday, he pleaded not guilty during a brief appearance at the Airport Courthouse.

Far from embodying the severity of the justice system, Ewell benefited from its lenience over the last 16 years, according to a Times review of court records and interviews.

Ewell has a lengthy criminal history that includes two robbery convictions from the 1980s.

Meanwhile, Larry Altman at the Daily Breeze reports:

Records show Ewell has an extensive criminal history dating to the 1980s that includes grand theft, robbery, burglary and forgery.

The complaint shows him with two prior “strikes” for robbery convictions in 1988 and 2005.

Frankly, between the L.A. Times and Larry Altman at the Daily Breeze — a reporter I respect quite a bit — I’m going with the Daily Breeze on this one.

If he’s right, the Los Angeles Times owes its readers a correction.

And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

UPDATE: Poking around some more, there are other stories whose facts suggest that Altman got it wrong. A Press-Telegram editorial says:

From a prosecutor’s viewpoint, Ewell didn’t seem violent. As the LA Times reported, his most recent arrest was for petty thievery at a Huntington Park Home Depot. He had been out of prison since 2002 . . .

If he had a robbery conviction in 2005, he would not have been out of prison since 2002. Similarly, the New York Times implies that he already had the two strikes on his record in the 1990s:

Judges convicted him of forcing a woman to withdraw money at an A.T.M. in 1985 and pulling a man from a parked truck, binding his arms and driving off with the man’s wallet. He became an advocate of repealing the three-strikes law, which allows for life sentences on a third conviction, appearing at events and on the “The Montel Williams Show” and saying he feared being thrown in prison for good.

Under the law, a person with two felony convictions is eligible for a sentence of 25 years to life on any third offense. In most California counties, that law is applied as written, Mr. Grace said. But in Los Angeles, he said, public outcry against life imprisonment for third offenses as minor as “stealing a piece of pizza” led the current district attorney, Steve Cooley, to win his post in 2000 on a platform of reforming the law. Mr. Grace said Mr. Cooley’s “office policy is to treat as a second-strike case” a third offense that is not violent. In the late 1990s, when Mr. Ewell was convicted of forging a check, prosecutors did not pursue a life sentence.

So perhaps the L.A. Times got it right after all. It will be interesting to see whether they run any editorials about the case — given that their editorials have for years called for precisely the sort of treatment this individual received from the system.

UPDATE 12-11-10: Turns out the reporters got it right after all. Ewell had robbery convictions in 1985 and 1989. Details and proof here. My apologies for suggesting the paper got it wrong.

19 Responses to “Los Angeles Times (Possibly) Errs in Describing Third Striker’s Record; UPDATE: And Possibly Not; NEW UPDATE: Definitely Not”

  1. two thoughts.

    First, the LA Times’ article is generally supportive of three strikes. So i would go as far to say that this would be an error that really is just an error, if that is the case.

    Second, i would be curious to hear what you think of three strikes laws. But i understand that with your job you might not be able to speak freely.

    Aaron Worthing (b8e056)

  2. If I had a propensity to murder 4 people every time I left the house, I’d be pretty afraid of leaving my house, too.

    Poor fella.

    Far from embodying the severity of the justice system, Ewell benefited from its lenience over the last 16 years, according to a Times review of court records and interviews.

    Sounds like the LA Times is right. Someone who commits two robberies is not tip-toeing around, worried about jaywalking charges. When you invade someone’s home to steal from them, you are putting lives at risk for a pittance.

    What a shame 4 people had to die (assuming he is guilty), thanks to the fact it’s not a 2-strikes law.

    Dustin (b54cdc)

  3. I must say that both stories paint a picture of someone with a long record and no reason to complain, even if some of the details are a bit mixed up.

    MD in Philly (cac12c)

  4. Aaron:

    You can get some idea of my feelings in this post, but there is waaaay more to it than that. I have an entire No on 66 category that you can peruse to your heart’s content. I wrote about this for years.

    Patterico (c218bd)

  5. Also, Aaron:

    If you had been reading the blog since its inception, you would have a FAR more cynical view of the L.A. Times and their little motivations in misreporting on this issue as they have so many times over the years.

    Which is not to say that they got this one wrong. I honestly don’t know.

    Patterico (c218bd)

  6. Patterico

    This is also pretty suggestive:

    Ewell became an active member of the group when he was released from prison in 2002. He attended a 2004 news conference to back a ballot measure to amend the law and appeared on “The Montel Williams Show” in 2006, the Los Angeles Times reported.

    If he was campaigning against the law in 2004, he probably had two strikes by then. And if he committed robbery in 2005, would it be realistic to expect him to be able to appear on montel Williams in 2006 as a free man and claim he can’t leave the house? I mean I am actually asking because I don’t know what kind of sentences people get out in California.

    And there are more details of the criminal history at that link, really suggesting that they looked into it separately and confirmed the LA times account. My instinct is to say the LA times is right.

    But… I suspect it would be appropriate to compliment your self discipline. I bet you could have found out at any time. I briefly interned at a District Attorney’s office in texas and nothing would have stopped me from looking up anyone’s criminal record. Of course I only looked up people I was supposed to, but I had no reason to believe I couldn’t get away with looking up anyone else’s.

    Come to think of it, i wish i had looked up my sister’s ex. He might have been in prison by then for the long haul. He was such an @$$.

    Aaron Worthing (b8e056)

  7. I could get fired for that, Aaron.

    Not a hard decision.

    Patterico (c218bd)

  8. _____________________________________________

    possible error by the Los Angeles Times

    The politics and idiocy of publications like the LA Times — and which make a mockery of journalism’s supposed motto of “who, what, when, where and why” — are best exemplified by their unwillingness to describe the basic external characteristics of a suspect in a crime. That is, his (or her) race or ethnicity. As far as I’m concerned, that in itself is a form of an error, and a blatant and ongoing one at that.

    Mark (3e3a7c)

  9. P.S. Just because this flawed proposition was voted down, does not mean that all is hunky-dory with the Three Strikes law. Californians were educated about the deficiencies in this proposed fix, but they clearly think the law should be changed. And, in some cases, it’s the right thing to do. So let’s preempt another such initiative, and work with the legislature to pass reasonable reform.

    Well you even agree with it. Three strikes and MMS do not work! If they do we don’t really need judges any longer do we?

    Oh wait, do not work for whom? They don’t work for the citizens, they do do work for those building cages and housing the ever increasing population of incarcerated.

    RTF (99d16a)

  10. Well you even agree with it. Three strikes and MMS do not work!

    I never said that. They work just fine, if you’re talking about protecting the public.

    Patterico (c218bd)

  11. “If he had a robbery conviction in 2005, he would not have been out of prison since 2002.”

    Really? I never assume that.

    California’s three strikes has been wildly misrepresented by anti-incarceration activists in the media and elsewhere.

    And I often come up with cases where nobody can even begin to explain why someone did no time at all for convictions for violent crimes.

    It’s chaos. And until we start requiring the courts to practice transparency by reporting all decisions in an accessible manner, we’re going to have to rely on court-watchers to tell us what is happening to victims, and not happening to criminals, every blood day.

    Take a hard look at what’s reported on this blog, which is one of the few by courtwatchers — in this case people watching the Orlando-area domestic court system. The system is utterly broken, and too many of us pay with our lives:

    http://courtwatchflorida.blogspot.com/

    Tina Trent (7f2406)

  12. It would be amazing indeed for someone to be convicted of robbery in 2005, with the gravamen of the crime being one of the robberies described in the NYT article, with a lengthy record including a robbery conviction based on a crime such as the other one described in the NYT article … and yet evade a prison sentence.

    It’s difficult for me to imagine how that could happen — unless it was a really really rotten case.

    Patterico (c218bd)

  13. “Protecting the public”, something that some people fail to grasp, its interesting that one of the mot liberal states had to take that drastic measure, (not drastic to me but to liberals) makes me shudder the tens of thousands of lives ruined by crime in California

    EricPWJohnson (719277)

  14. In light of the recent election, I wonder what a study would reveal re Mr. Cooley’s electoral support vis-a-vis his position on 3-strikes?
    Did he gain support among “liberals” for his “kind heart”, or did they just dismiss him for his political affiliation; and did that same “kind heart” cost him support among the Law & Order groups regardless of his GOP ties?
    I know that this voter was torn, and his actions in the “Roger the Dodger” matter were IMO in-excusable, and cost him this GOP vote.

    AD-RtR/OS! (b8ab92)

  15. ______________________________________________

    Did he gain support among “liberals” for his “kind heart”

    When it comes to the electorate and politics of Greece/Mexico/France/Spain/Venezuela (aka California), I think the only nuance of why many voters plucked a chad for a politician came down to whether he (or she) was a liberal or not.

    California is, or certainly is becoming, a northern version of Mexico. So no matter how corrupt, impoverished, crime-ridden and semi-literate such a place is (or devolving to), a majority of its voters continue to believe the notion that “liberalism and its adherents are beautiful, wonderful, generous and humane!” In such societies, people with common sense are pretty much in short supply and left out of the equation.

    Mark (3e3a7c)

  16. The argument that someone with two previous felony convictions could be sent away for life for stealing a piece of pizza means that he should avoid stealing a piece of pizza. Why should it be difficult for people under such a threat to say, “You know, I’m a bit hungry, but I’m not going to steal a slice today?”

    If Mr Ewell “lived in fear that even a small offense would land him back in prison for life,” then the obvious response is to not commit even a small offense. It’s not like criminal acts are accidents, you know.

    The hard-hearted Dana (3e4784)

  17. I always roll my eyes when I see that “steal a piece of pizza” case reference.

    In that case, a bully walked up to a group of younger kids eating pizza and took the pizza with a “what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it” attitude.

    It was as close to robbery as you can get.

    Arizona Bob (f57a20)

  18. If he was so concerned about California’s “Three Strikes Law,” couldn’t he have moved to another state that didn’t have that statute on the books? Or, was he anchored to CA by a release condition? If not, there are 56 49 other states to which he could’ve migrated. Either way, he gives a new, illustrative meaning to “reprobate” and “incorrigible.”

    skh.pcola (f4773e)

  19. The pizza guy didn’t end up doing life on that crime.

    On this one, I work in a different county. It is easily possible Mr. Ewell would not have been struck out here, either.

    But we would have issued the case as a Three Strikes case, bail would have been set at $250K, and a plea would have been to at least eight years prison with no stay.

    Finally, as to whether a person could have a robbery that settled for non-prison after two strikes, the only possible set-up I can see for that is that we have good evidence that is highly likely to be excluded. Otherwise, if your evidence is so week as to not want to imprison a guy with two strikes and two 667(a) priors for many years, that’s a dismissal – that means you can’t confidently say he’s guilty.

    –JRM

    JRM (cd0a37)


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