Man Bankrolls Initiative to Change 3-Strikes Law

He spends $1.56 million in a bid that would mean fewer long terms, offer hope to his inmate son.

By Dan Morain
Times Staff Writer

May 31, 2004

SACRAMENTO — An insurance company owner has spent $1.56 million to foster a ballot initiative that would change California’s three-strikes sentencing law — and could free his son from Folsom prison, where he is serving eight years for crashing his Lexus while intoxicated and killing two passengers.

Jerry Keenan, who owns a Sacramento insurance brokerage, spent the money to gather signatures to place the measure on the November ballot, campaign finance reports show. Proponents and opponents alike expect it to qualify in coming days.

The initiative would broadly overhaul the three-strikes law. One provision in particular would benefit Keenan’s son, prosecutors and other legal experts say. Keenan’s attorney, Steven Sanders of Sacramento, helped write that provision, said the initiative’s official proponent, Jim Benson.

Parents of the two 19-year-olds who died in Richard W. Keenan’s car in 1999 said the young man’s father is trying to use his wealth to help his son avoid responsibility.

Jerry Keenan and his wife, Cynthia, will “go to the ends of the Earth for this kid,” said Cece Stone, whose only child, Marsha Runyon, died of internal injuries.

Sherry Souza, the mother of Thaddeus Czuprynski, who also died in the crash, said Jerry Keenan is “a man with a lot of money trying to get his kid out of prison.”

Keenan declined to comment.

Many initiatives in California have been “immensely personal” for their backers, said Elizabeth Garrett, a law professor and a director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at USC. A father whose daughter was murdered in Fresno, for example, pushed for passage of the 1994 three-strikes initiative.

Proponents say the new measure would have broad benefits: It would save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars by reserving lengthy sentences for serious and violent felons, instead of requiring long prison terms for some people who commit relatively minor crimes.

“The idea of jailing someone in a maximum-security prison for the rest of their life because they stole a loaf of bread or a few videotapes is mindless vengeance,” Citizens Against Violent Crime, an Orange County group promoting the initiative, says on its website.

Sacramento County Dist. Atty. Jan Scully, whose office prosecuted Richard Keenan, denounced the proposed initiative, saying: “He should have to pay for his crimes like everyone else. Let’s not forget that he killed two people.”

The measure is opposed by an array of law enforcement groups, from county prosecutors and sheriffs to the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. and various crime victims groups. They are concerned that its various provisions could result in the release of thousands of inmates who could pose a danger to society.

Richard Keenan pleaded guilty in 2000 to two counts of gross vehicular manslaughter for the deaths of Runyon and Czuprynski, and a separate count of causing great bodily injury to a third passenger.

He had been drinking beer and smoking marijuana on the night of the crash when he and four friends, including Runyon and Czuprynski, got into his gold Lexus coupe outside Sacramento, according to court records.

Keenan, 21 at the time, was behind the wheel though his license had been suspended that year after a California Highway Patrol officer stopped him for not wearing a seat belt and found a baggie of marijuana in his car.

Keenan headed for a winding, back road where he could drive at high speeds, court records say. As he raced — reaching 95 mph — he lost control, and the car flipped four times. Czuprynski died instantly. Runyon died a few days later.

Benson said in an interview that he was only vaguely aware that one of Keenan’s relatives had been in prison. But he said he could not blame a father for trying to help a son.

“If I was in his shoes, I might do the same thing,” Benson said.

In interviews and on his website, Benson focuses on the overhaul of the three-strikes law offered by the proposed initiative, not the issue that prosecutors say would affect Richard Keenan

Approved by voters in 1994, the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law imposes 25 years to life on repeat felons. It says that people convicted of two or more serious or violent felonies face 25 years to life if they are convicted a third time of any felony.

In some cases, that felony might be a relatively minor offense, such as shoplifting, if the person has a previous shoplifting conviction.

The proposed initiative would amend the law so that repeat offenders would face 25 years to life only if, on their third convictions, they committed “serious” or “violent” felonies. And it would redefine the violent felony offense of inflicting “great bodily injury.” The initiative also would permit courts to retroactively reduce penalties imposed on people imprisoned for such crimes.

If voters approved the measure, Keenan’s sentence could be shortened and a violent felony — a “strike” — would be expunged from his record. If he were to commit another serious crime, he would not face the sort of stiff sentence imposed on repeat offenders, noted Wayne Strumpfer of the California District Attorneys Association.

Under current law, people can be convicted of inflicting great bodily injury whether or not they intended to do so. In Keenan’s case, the prosecutor merely needed to show that he caused great bodily injury while driving under the influence of marijuana and alcohol.

Current law requires Keenan to serve at least 85% of his term. If the proposed initiative were to pass and Keenan’s great bodily injury conviction were erased, he could be freed after serving half his sentence, as early as the end of this year.

Sacramento County Deputy Dist. Atty. Brian Myers, who prosecuted Keenan, said that Keenan’s lawyers repeatedly sought to have the great bodily injury charge dismissed — “and I just refused because I understood the ramifications.”

Earlier this year, Keenan’s lawyer, Sanders, went to court to challenge the length of Keenan’s sentence by attacking the great bodily injury charge. Sacramento Superior Court Judge Kenneth L. Hake rejected the move, noting that Keenan agreed to the sentence as part of his plea bargain in 2000. Sanders did not return calls from The Times.

In Benson’s view, Jerry Keenan’s motives are straightforward: “He is a businessman. He doesn’t want to see his taxes go up to pay for things that are frivolous,” Benson said, referring to long sentences for minor criminals.

Meanwhile, at the Souzas’ home in the Sierra foothills, the parents of the two dead teens talked about how their lives have been unalterably upended.

Stone has been unable to work steadily for five years, since she made the wrenching decision to turn off life support for her child and devote time to court proceedings. Now, Stone and the Souzas intend to spend time speaking out against the initiative.

“We can’t get on with our lives,” Stone said.