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