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L.A. woman who received an unenforceable plea deal asks Brown to commute her sentence

L.A. woman who received an unenforceable plea deal asks Brown to commute her sentence
Candace Fox has asked Gov. Jerry Brown, above, to commute her life prison sentence. She had agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for a 7½-year sentence, but the deal was later deemed unenforceable. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

A Los Angeles woman who ended up with a life prison sentence after initially agreeing to a plea deal that promised possible parole after 7½ years has asked Gov. Jerry Brown to commute her sentence.

The case, which troubled a federal appeals court, shows what can happen if a plea agreement is not in writing and the judge, the prosecutor and the defense lawyer fail to check the fine points of the law.

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Candace Fox, who turns 57 next month, has been in prison for 33 years for joining others in the killing and robbery of Lewis Levy. Fox was 24 at the time, a single mother and a manicurist.

Fox agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder and testify against a co-defendant. In exchange, a Los Angeles prosecutor promised her in open court she could be released in 7½ years.

But neither the judge, the prosecutor nor the defense lawyer appeared to realize that by law she would have to serve 10 years.

When Fox later discovered this, her mother hired a lawyer to challenge her sentence.

The Los Angeles prosecutor initially denied he had offered her possible parole at 7½ years, but a transcript of the sentencing hearing confirmed Fox's contention.

A state court overturned her conviction, but Fox ended up in a much worse situation.

Shortly before she became eligible for parole after nearly 10 years, Fox was retried, and without the presence of the co-defendants, a jury convicted her of first-degree murder. She was sentenced to life without parole.

Last year, a divided three-judge federal appeals court expressed concern about her case but upheld her sentence anyway.

Judge N. Randy Smith, appointed by President George W. Bush, wrote the majority decision. He called the circumstances of the case "unfortunate" but said the law dictated the result.

Judge Andrew D. Hurwitz, a President Obama appointee, wrote that Fox had "committed a gruesome and senseless crime" but called her case "troubling"

"She held up her end of the bargain, testifying for five hours in a preliminary hearing," yet her co-defendants received shorter sentences, he wrote.

"The state could remedy this situation either through clemency or by once again offering Fox the chance to plead guilty to second-degree murder," Hurwitz wrote in a concurring opinion.

"If the state had kept its word, Fox would have been released from prison over two decades ago," the President Carter appointee wrote. "Instead, because the state brazenly broke its promise to her and lied about it to the courts, Fox will now likely spend the rest of her life in prison, unless the governor commutes her sentence."

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He described the case as a story "of repeated falsehoods by the state prosecutors and repeated errors by the state courts, each condemning Fox to untold years in prison in violation of the state's original bargain."

Fox's petition asks Brown to commute her sentence to second-degree murder with eligibility for parole.

Her crime occurred in 1984.

She and three others were sitting around a pool in Canoga Park when her roommate mentioned that Levy owed her money for sexual services.

They robbed Levy to buy cocaine, according to court records. Fox's roommate repeatedly stabbed Levy, and Fox hit him over the head with a beer bottle.

Fox has two children. A daughter, who was 6 when Fox was arrested, is now 39 and a mother herself, and has been fighting for Fox's release.

A son, who was 4 when Fox was jailed, is now 37 and married with two children.

In her letter to Brown, Fox said she thought about Levy and his family almost every day. She said she would always be "tortured" by the pain she caused them and her own family.

Her only way of trying to make amends was to work hard in prison to serve others, she said.

She earned her high school diploma and an associate's degree in prison. She also was certified to tutor adults, served as a peer counselor for inmates suffering from mental illness, learned American Sign Language and continues to interpret for the deaf at worship services and in the yards.

"I am a Christian and our belief is based upon love, forgiveness and grace, but I must confess I don't believe I will ever forgive myself for the people I hurt," she wrote. "But I come before you to ask for mercy."

Brown's office did not comment on Fox's petition. He has granted 927 pardons during his recent administration and 18 commutations.

Twitter: @mauradolan

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