Stealing one slice of pizza results in life sentence


Published 4:00 am, Friday, March 3, 1995

1995-03-03 04:00:00 PDT CALIFORNIA — TORRANCE – A man who stole a piece of pizza last summer has been sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, sparking renewed debate over the state’s tough “three strikes” sentencing law.

Jerry Dewayne Williams, 27, of Los Angeles was convicted of felony petty theft in January for taking a slice of pepperoni pizza from a group of children, ages 7 to 14, eating at Adam’s Pizza on the Redondo Beach pier on July 30.

Superior Court Judge Donald Pitts imposed the stiff sentence on Williams, who had four previous felony convictions, after rejecting his attorney’s argument that the punishment did not fit the crime.

“Mr. Williams will be facing the same sentence as if he’d raped a woman, molested a child or done a carjacking because the statute does not draw distinctions,” said Arnold Lester, Williams’ public defender.

Prosecutors had requested the prison term because Williams had prior convictions for robbery, attempted robbery, drug possession and unauthorized use of a vehicle.

During Williams’ trial, prosecutors argued the petty crime was a case of robbery by intimidation. Deputy District Attorney Bill Gravelin said Williams “proceeded to victimize and to bully these vulnerable children” and that the law was specifically aimed at punishing repeat offenders like him.

Williams, who testified in his own defense during his trial, testified that some of the children nodded their heads “yes” when he asked them for a slice of pizza and that he thanked them for it.

But a 13-year-old boy in the group testified: “I was scared.”

Lester contended that his client made no threat and was only playing an immature game of “Truth or Dare” with a friend fueled by an afternoon of beer drinking.

While petty theft is typically a misdemeanor charge, Williams’ earlier convictions allowed prosecutors to upgrade it to a felony.

Previous serious felonies

And under the state’s three strikes law, two of the crimes – robbery and attempted robbery – were serious felonies that made Williams liable to a sentence of 25 years to life on his next serious conviction. Petty theft is included in that category.

Opponents of the three strikes law said Williams’ case is an example of arbitrary prosecution under the guidelines, which they say could also boost prison costs.

“No matter how many pizza thieves it sends to prison, this law is not going to make our streets safer,” said Allan Parachini of the American Civil Liberties Union.

California’s three strikes law enacted last year requires longer sentences for felons with at least one prior conviction for a serious or violent felony.

Defendants with two previous serious or violent felonies, for instance, face sentences of 25 years to life for any third felony.

So far, the vast majority of defendants convicted under the 10-month-old statute have committed nonviolent crimes, according to studies released by the state’s non-partisan legislative analyst in January.

Of the nearly 3,000 inmates convicted of a second or third strike through November 1994, more than 82 percent are behind bars for crimes not labeled serious or violent by the act, the legislative analyst, Elizabeth Hill said. The most common offenses were drug violations or petty thefts.

Parole after 20 years

Williams will not be eligible for parole until he serves 20 years of his sentence, Lester said.

Lester said Williams was unhappy but had resigned himself to the sentence he received. He vowed to appeal it.

But a Redondo Beach resident who sat through Williams’ trial voiced support for longer sentences.

“It’s like, hey, this guy’s had five chances and he still goes out and commits a crime,” Heling Craig said.