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August 17, 2010

State judge frees defendant subject to harshest aspect of California's three-strikes law

This Los Angeles Times article report on a notable new development in a notable three-strikes sentencing case from California.  The piece is headlined "Finally, a convict's third strike is struck: Gregory Taylor was a homeless man when he was arrested for trying to break into a church. His third strike brought a harsh sentence — but now he's going free, thanks to two Stanford law students." Here is how the piece starts:

Gregory Taylor's case was so egregious that an appellate justice likened him to Jean Valjean of Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables," so disconcerting that he became the centerpiece of debate in a district attorney's race, so bewildering that a chapter was devoted to his story in a 2005 book about California's three-strikes law.

Taylor was a 35-year-old homeless man when he was arrested in 1997 for attempting to break into the kitchen of a Catholic church that served the poor, where he was a regular and occasionally volunteered.  He told the arresting officer that he was hungry and wanted something to eat.  A priest from the church testified in his defense, saying Taylor was welcome there.

Because of his two prior felony convictions — snatching a purse containing $10 and a bus pass, and an unarmed, unsuccessful attempt to rob a man on the street — Taylor was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for his third strike.

Yet until a couple of Stanford law students took up his case earlier this year, Taylor languished in a San Luis Obispo prison with little hope of getting out: He was not eligible for parole until 2022.

On Monday, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ordered Taylor's release, ruling on a petition of habeas corpus filed by the students.  The pair were part of a Stanford Law School project devoted to helping three-strikes inmates serving lengthy sentences for minor third offenses.  So far, the project has won the release of 14 inmates, said Michael Romano, its director.

"Today we are able to correct the past and strike his third strike," Judge Peter Espinoza said in his ruling vacating Taylor's original sentence and giving him a new sentence of eight years, which he has already served.  He said the law, passed in 1994, produced what he called "unintended and unanticipated consequences" in its early years.

New evidence presented by the students of Taylor's character, medical history and exposure to domestic violence and trauma as a child meant that he falls "outside the spirit of the three-strikes law," the judge said.

August 17, 2010 at 09:47 AM | Permalink

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Comments

Doug, a few months ago a commenter on the blog said that Eighth Amendment claims are "nonstarters." Within the past two months, two judges in NC have set aside lengthy habitual felon sentences for possessing one tenth of a gram of cocaine and imposed lesser sentences. I am beginning to sense a distaste among our judges for being put into positions by prosecutors that they have to impose enormous sentences for nonviolent crimes committed by drug addicts. This has been caused by our grid of mandatory minimums and what I think is one of the most draconian three strike law in the country. Judges are starting to push back.

bruce cunningham

Posted by: bruce cunningham | Aug 17, 2010 10:06:40 AM

The prosecutors are just following the legislators and the general public. If the judges don't like imposing lawful sentences perhaps they need to find a different line of work, one that doesn't press up against their delicate sensibilities.

I don't see that this sentence was outside the spirit of the three strikes law at all. The entire point is to remove those who refuse to follow the law. When it comes to respecting the rights and property of others it's not that hard, most of us manage it with little trouble. I admit that other laws can be more difficult but the profiled case does not appear to involve any such issue. It is only incompetence, not intentions, that have kept Mr. Taylor from causing even more harm. He has attempted robbery at least twice, that should be enough coupled with any further infraction to put him away for a good long while.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Aug 17, 2010 10:36:08 AM

I'd say 13 years for an attempted burglary is a "good long while" under any definition.

The problem in California is that the citizenry's desire to lock up huge numbers of nonviolent criminals has begun to bump up against the fact that the state is broke. Regardless of whether or not you think sentences like this are appropriate, the fact is that the state just can't afford them.

Posted by: SRS | Aug 17, 2010 1:02:01 PM

Taylor was a 35-year-old homeless man when he was arrested in 1997 for attempting to break into the kitchen of a Catholic church that served the poor, where he was a regular and occasionally volunteered. He told the arresting officer that he was hungry and wanted something to eat. A priest from the church testified in his defense, saying Taylor was welcome there.

Just out of my own curiosity, when I read this I wanted to know more about the facts of the underlying case. Were charges pressed over the church's objection? Or was it just the one priest who testified in Taylor's defense? Did someone at the church call the police or did an alarm go off or what? (Since some of my law school classmates were involved in this case, I suppose I could ask them these questions. But has anyone seen a more detailed description in the press?)

Posted by: Sara Mayeux | Aug 17, 2010 2:18:21 PM

Sara, the church appears to be one and the same. "He attended St. Joseph's Church and befriended Father Alan McCoy, who allowed him to sleep there.

"At Taylor's sentencing, McCoy pleaded that he not be given a life sentence, saying he was a 'very good person who may have made mistakes.'"

Field poll: Support for easing '3-strikes'
By Gary Delsohn -- Bee Capitol Bureau
Published 2:15 am PDT Thursday, June 10, 2004
By an overwhelming majority, voters are poised to significantly soften California's still hotly debated "three-strikes" sentencing law, according to a public opinion poll released Wednesday.

The statewide Field Poll shows 76 percent of likely voters supporting a November initiative that would amend the law so that life sentences could be imposed only if the defendant's third strike was a violent felony.

The support is across the board, with 80 percent of Democrats and 74 percent of Republicans now saying they'll vote for the initiative

----

That was before Gov. Schwarzenegger's PR campaign where his propaganda machine repeated the "patently false'' fear mongering a judge ordered stricken from the initiative. Schwarzenegger visited all the major editorial boards. What was the quid pro quo?

Again, the prison guard union was behind it:

How Prospects for Prop. 66 Fell So Far, So Fast

Posted by: George | Aug 17, 2010 3:40:46 PM

Finances are a separate matter from whether a sentence is lawful or not. I'm glad Californians are finally seeing the madness in what they have done but that really doesn't have much bearing on the case at hand.

Of course November is also a long ways off yet and some Williie Horton type situation could crop up and defeat the ballot measure despite current strong support.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Aug 17, 2010 4:52:06 PM

No, finances don't have a bearing on whether a given sentence is constitutional, but they most certainly have a bearing on whether it is a prudent use of extraordinarily limited resources to imprison nonviolent offenders for decades.

And the ballot proposition George is referencing lost in 2004.

Posted by: SRS | Aug 17, 2010 5:34:56 PM

Soronel, concerning your comment that the judges should find other work if they don't want to impose lawful sentences, I would encourage you to consider what is the most fundamental principle underlying our constitutional democracy. That is, the notion of judicial supremacy. Judges have not only the right but the duty to strike down a sentence when it offends the Eighth Amendment. And they should be able to do it without people saying that they should step down from their job when they have stepped up to their job.

best regards,

bruce

Posted by: bruce cunningham | Aug 17, 2010 6:06:11 PM

Bruce,

I will agree that judges have abrogated such power to themselves (with the complicit apathy of other government actors) It should not be nearly so routine as it is, however. for them to exercise such power. Each such act should place the judges in strong peril of impeachment.

"what is the most fundamental principle underlying our constitutional democracy. That is, the notion of judicial supremacy"

Written like a true indoctrinated member of the criminal cult enterprise.

I would say the fundamental principal of our government is that no part of government should be supreme over the others.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Aug 17, 2010 9:01:33 PM

Soronel, are you suggesting that Marbury v Madison was wrongly decided? Just curious. Are you suggesting that Justice Scalia should be impeached for saying in Ring that it doesn't matter if the legislature calls something an element, a sentencing factor, or Mary Jane, if that something increases potential punishment above the level allowed by the jury verdict alone, it must be found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt>

bruce

Posted by: bruce cunningham | Aug 17, 2010 9:16:50 PM

The basic reason we have three strikes laws and occasional outcomes like this is that the legislature had enough of wildly lenient sentencing in the 60's and 70's and decided to bring it to a halt. Exactly the same thing underlay the (once) mandatory federal sentencing guidelines and the prolifertaion of mandatory minimums.

When legislatures can trust judges to quit giving away the store, they'll slow down (or stop) things like the three strikes law. Until then, they won't.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 17, 2010 9:45:32 PM

Bruce,

I would say both that Marbary was decided correctly but that Congress needs to ride herd on judges far more closely than they do. A delicate balance I know.
A judge should not fear making the right decision just because they will be out of a job because of it. Much like I believe Lynne Stewart deserves both her long prison sentence and her many supporters.

I will also say, however, that the U.S. government is not yet dysfunctional enough to suit me. It's getting there but has a ways to go yet. The top ranks are pretty close but that just means that the folks just below the top are free to do what they want instead of doing nothing.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Aug 17, 2010 10:55:13 PM

In matters of justice, lawmakers are bombardiers and judges are ground forces.

Lawmakers -- mostly a class of soulless, pandering, grubbing job seekers -- don't see or much care about the wreckage and mangled bodies after they loose bombs from high above.

Judges --apparently even including at least some former prosecutors and arch-conservative lawyers Republicans have been packing the courts with for the past 30 years -- do see who they're hurting. To their credit, at least some of them feel compelled to use their power to prevent injustices of the sort Mr. Taylor was facing.

I wouldn't want to live in a democracy that didn't have a judiciary charged with keeping the mob's voices in the legislature from doing any damned destructive thing it wants to anyone who happens to be out of favor with the mob in the months before elections are held.

Judge Espinoza is one of my new heroes.

Posted by: John K | Aug 18, 2010 1:58:21 PM

Judges have not only the right but the duty to strike down a sentence when it offends the Eighth Amendment. And they should be able to do it without people saying that they should step down from their job when they have stepped up to their job.

Posted by: NFL Jerseys | Aug 18, 2010 9:48:40 PM

Three Strikes and Mandatory Sentencing are the legislatures way to seize authority and power within the judicial realm. And the judges are right to push back on this madness.

Any politican who runs on a "get tough on crime" platform is really someone who would sacrifice the innocent (or less guilty) in order to further the selfish advance of his own political career. Time to vote such politicians out of office and keep them out.

Posted by: John Newton | Aug 25, 2010 12:30:12 PM

Judges have not only the right but the duty to strike

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