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Man Guilty in Potential ‘3 Strikes’ Pizza Case : Crime: Jury convicts small-time criminal of felony petty theft for stealing a slice from children. He could get a 25-years-to-life sentence.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jerry Dewayne Williams--a small-time street criminal described by his girlfriend as a man with a habit of committing “stupid, stupid” crimes--was found guilty Friday of stealing a single slice of pepperoni pizza. He now faces 25 years to life in prison under the state’s sweeping “three strikes” law.

Word of the Torrance Superior Court verdict and the specter of a life sentence for the 27-year-old Compton warehouseman appalled critics of the law. It seems certain to fuel debate between those who say the law is the get-tough medicine a society of victims has long demanded and those who believe it imposes unfair punishment.

“It’s a tragedy,” said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “It’s a perfect example of why ‘three strikes’ is wrong.”

After nearly three days of deliberations--during which nearly the entire transcript of the trial was reread--an eight-woman, four-man jury deadlocked on two charges of robbery against Williams, but convicted him of felony petty theft for swiping a piece of pizza from four children July 30 near the Redondo Beach Pier.

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Although petty theft is typically a misdemeanor charge, Williams’ four previous felony convictions--for robbery, attempted robbery, unauthorized use of a motor vehicle and possession of a controlled substance--allowed prosecutors to bump it up to a felony. And under the “three strikes” law, two of the crimes--robbery and attempted robbery--were “serious” felonies that made Williams eligible for 25-years-to-life on his next “serious” conviction. The law includes felony petty theft in that category.

As testimony in the trial wrapped up early this week, Williams and his attorney held out hope that, if convicted, Judge Donald F. Pitts might strike one of Williams’ previous felony convictions, thereby eliminating any chance of a 25-years-to-life term.

But those hopes sank when an appeals court ruled Tuesday that judges have no power to disregard previous convictions. Williams’ attorney, Deputy Public Defender Arnold T. Lester, said the appeals court ruling would almost certainly be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

While critics called Williams’ possible punishment cruel and unusual, supporters said they were missing the point.

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“He’s not going away for life for stealing a piece of pizza,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Bill Gravlin, who prosecuted the case. “If you focus on the value of the property taken, you miss a lot of the other factors. He’s a habitual criminal. He’s a dangerous man.”

Neither side disputed the basic facts: Williams and a friend, who was not arrested, approached the four children, ages 7 to 15, as they ate the extra-large pie from Adam’s Pizza on the International Boardwalk in Redondo Beach. Both men said they were hungry and asked for a piece. What was in dispute throughout the trial was the children’s response, and, more importantly, Williams’ size and manner.

Gravlin told the jury this was a case of robbery by intimidation, at one point lining up the diminutive victims next to 6-foot-5-inch Williams.

“How did you feel when they took the pizza?” Gravlin asked 13-year-old Michael Adkins.

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“I was scared,” Adkins replied.

Defense attorney Lester, meanwhile, said the incident stemmed from an “immature” game of “Truth or Dare,” and was fueled by an afternoon’s worth of beers. But, he said, his client--who sat head down and silent throughout the trial--was anything but menacing and even thanked the children before walking off with the slice.

Williams, who took the stand in his own defense, said some of the children nodded their heads in a gesture of “yes.” He also testified that he thanked them for the pizza before leaving and was shocked when police slapped handcuffs on him a short time later as he frolicked with friends in a nearby arcade.

A small contingent of police supporters from Redondo Beach sat through the trial, saying they were there to make sure justice was served and a “four-time loser” will finally get his comeuppance when he is sentenced Feb.22.

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But Williams’ girlfriend, Tina White, said she could not comprehend such sentiments.

“It’s not fair,” White said. “Life is worth more than a piece of pizza.”


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