Law students help free three-strikes offenders

A Stanford clinic focuses on mostly nonviolent inmates whose third strike they see as relatively minor. Four have had sentences cut; three of them are out. The law’s author calls the effort misguided.

May 13, 2009 Jack Leonard

STANFORD, CALIF. — Norman Williams feared he would be an old man if he was ever allowed to leave the granite walls of Folsom State Prison. The Long Beach native was serving a possible life sentence under California’s three-strikes law. His crime: stealing a car jack and tools from a tow truck.

After a decade without a visitor, two law school students and their instructor arrived offering Williams a reason to hope.

Sitting at a metal table in the prison’s visiting area, the trio told him they believed his punishment was cruelly harsh. Though they cautioned that it was a legal long shot, they said they wanted to try to reduce his sentence.

Two weeks ago, Williams, 45, walked out of prison a free man.

His case marks one of several recent victories for a Stanford law clinic where students are devoted to reversing what they view as miscarriages of justice under the three-strikes law.

Their work involves a new twist on a strategy employed by innocence projects nationwide in which students have helped overturn wrongful convictions and sparked debate over the death penalty.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, June 17, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 93 words Type of Material: Correction
Three strikes: An article in the May 13 Section A about a Stanford University law clinic’s attempt to free prisoners convicted under the state’s three-strikes law reported that former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti sought possible life prison terms in nearly all eligible cases during his time in office. Although Garcetti initially called on prosecutors to seek 25-years-to-life prison terms in all but rare cases, head deputy district attorneys were given discretion to decide whether or not to seek the maximum sentence, and the results varied widely from courthouse to courthouse.

Rather than championing the innocent, the Stanford students are advocating for prisoners guilty of what they view as relatively minor offenses and raising the question of how much prison time is too much.

The effort touches a nerve. Fifteen years ago, California voters overwhelmingly approved the three-strikes sentencing law. The state rejected a reform initiative five years ago.

The Stanford clinic is taking aim at the most controversial part of the law, which imposes at least 25 years to life in prison even for a nonviolent felony, such as petty theft or drug possession, as long as an offender’s criminal history includes at least two violent or serious crimes.

Students and their instructors hope to redress what they call grossly unfair sentences for minor crimes and spur changes in the law. Their clients, they say, illustrate how the justice system has unfairly ensnared low-level defendants whose crimes are often linked to mental illness, drug abuse or extreme poverty.

“These people fall between the cracks,” said Jennifer Robinson, who recently graduated. “It’s an awful situation that I don’t think that the voters envisioned.”

Supporters of three-strikes disagree.

Mike Reynolds, who wrote the three-strikes law after his 18-year-old daughter’s murder in Fresno, said many prisoners who have minor third strikes also have long, violent criminal records. He said voters knew exactly whom they were putting away when they approved the law and called the Stanford clinic’s work misguided.

“Do they understand that they could be turning someone loose who could get out and hurt somebody?” he asked.

Since September, students have persuaded judges to lessen the sentences of four prisoners, including Williams. Three have been released so far, having already served their reduced prison terms, which ranged from six to 10 years.

More than 8,400 inmates are serving possible life terms under the three-strikes law, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Of those, more than 1,300 were sentenced for drug offenses and nearly 2,500 for property crimes. A department spokeswoman said the agency has not compiled data on what serious or violent felonies those inmates previously committed.

Since its launch in 2006, the Stanford Criminal Defense Clinic has been deluged with letters from inmates and their relatives pleading for help. None have attorneys to handle their appeals, the clinic says.

Instructors at the clinic sift through the letters and review appeals records in search of clients who appear to be good candidates for their help. Most of the inmates they aid have nonviolent criminal records.

“There’s a huge number of people who fit into that category,” said Michael S. Romano, a Stanford law school lecturer who launched the clinic.

Around the state, prosecutors are divided on how to apply the law. In Los Angeles County, Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley rarely seeks life sentences for repeat offenders unless the “third strike” involves a violent or serious crime. Serious crimes include such offenses as residential burglary and selling cocaine to a minor.

But many district attorneys adopt a more aggressive approach.

Before Cooley took office in 2000, predecessor Gil Garcetti sought possible life prison terms in nearly all eligible cases. It was during that period, in 1997, that Norman Williams was sentenced.

At Stanford, Mark Melahn and Jesse Goodman asked to work on Williams’ case after seeing his name on a list compiled by instructors.

Williams’ two previous strikes were residential burglaries. His most recent crime was a petty theft — an offense that would have been prosecuted as a misdemeanor but for his earlier theft convictions.

“It seemed like an especially egregious case,” said Melahn, who recently graduated from law school.