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Judge Imposes Valley’s 1st ‘3-Strikes’ Sentence : Crime: Burglar Robert Hardy is convicted with the help of love letters he wrote to his girlfriend and co-defendant.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Only time will tell whether Robert E. Hardy’s vows of eternal love for a woman he called “angel eyes” will stand the test of 30 years to life in state prison.

Hardy, a 29-year-old burglar with two prior convictions and a drug habit, on Thursday became the first person in the San Fernando Valley convicted and sentenced to life in prison under the controversial “three-strikes” law.

Among the evidence used against him this week at his Superior Court trial on charges of stealing $15,000 worth of musical equipment and jewelry: love letters to his girlfriend and co-defendant, 27-year-old Candice Bingaman.

In the letters, Hardy not only professed his love, he offered Bingaman pointers on how to testify at his trial.

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“I love you, baby. You hold the key for me,” Hardy wrote in June from his cell in County Jail. “My love for you will never end. But there is no way that I can do 15, 25, or 35 years. I just can’t do it, baby.”

Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert J. Schuit said Hardy begged Bingaman to lie for him on the witness stand. “The only way I can get out of this is for you to say you gave Michelle the checks,” he wrote. “We didn’t do NO burglary. You found those checks in the trash. . . . Otherwise, I’m gone for good!”

In the end, Bingaman chose a plea bargain over romance. She pleaded guilty Friday to a lesser charge of receiving stolen property and testified for the prosecution. She told Schuit about the letters, which she’d kept in her jail cell.

Jurors said those letters ultimately convinced them of Hardy’s guilt.

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They deliberated less than three hours before returning the guilty verdict Thursday morning. By Thursday afternoon, Hardy was on his way to state prison.

The jurors found Hardy guilty of burglarizing the home of a North Hollywood composer on March 16--just eight days after three strikes became law in California.

Hardy and Bingaman were arrested when an accomplice, Michelle Spreuer, 26, tried to buy tires with the stolen checks. Like Bingaman, Spreuer pleaded guilty to receiving stolen property. Both women are awaiting sentencing.

Had Hardy committed the burglary before the law went into effect, he could have faced a maximum sentence of 16 years in state prison. Now, he won’t be eligible for parole for 19 years, Schuit said.

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The prosecutor said Hardy is the type of criminal that lawmakers had in mind when they passed the so-called “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” legislation.

“We named the three-strikes law after this guy,” said Schuit. “This is a guy you don’t want on the street.”

A spokesman for the district attorney’s office said Hardy is among only a handful of Los Angeles County three-strikes convictions. As of Aug. 19, prosecutors have filed 863 three-strikes cases.

Defense attorney Christopher Nance had argued that Hardy was not involved in the crime and was being framed by his accomplices, who testified for the prosecution.

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After the verdict, Hardy admitted to two 1989 burglary convictions. During a routine reading of his legal rights, Schuit asked Hardy if anyone had threatened him or coerced him to admit his prior convictions.

“The law itself does that,” Hardy mumbled.

Judge Michael R. Hoff then sentenced Hardy, and he was handcuffed and led away.

Afterward, Hoff brought the jurors back into the courtroom and told them they’d just decided the Valley’s first three-strikes trial, a fact that had been kept from them. Several jurors reacted with surprise, but none seemed upset by Hardy’s sentence.

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