In a ruling that could affect similar cases throughout the state, a Ventura County judge on Tuesday refused to allow prosecutors to use the state's "three strikes" law against a Camarillo teen accused of participating in a deadly crime spree last year.
Ventura County Superior Court Judge Steven Z. Perren ruled that the law does not allow prosecutors to count Jose Duarte's juvenile criminal convictions as two strikes against him. A third strike would have left Duarte, who turned 18 last month, facing a far harsher sentence.
"The statute was inartfully drawn," Perren said. "There are inconsistencies that are irreconcilable."
If prosecutors appeal Perren's decision, it could give an appeals court the chance to either close what prosecutors describe as a loophole in the 2-year-old law or throw out what defense attorneys believe is a badly written aspect of the law.
Duarte became the youngest person in Ventura County to be prosecuted under the "three strikes" law when he was charged with robbery and false imprisonment for his alleged role in a Dec. 3 crime spree. The 30 minutes of mayhem started with the attempted robbery of a Camarillo Taco Bell and culminated with the random shooting death of a 25-year-old Moorpark motorist.
In between, according to prosecutors, Duarte and three alleged accomplices fired into a rival gang member's home in Camarillo and robbed a man at a Somis market.
Duarte allegedly committed the Somis robbery at gunpoint. He pleaded not guilty Tuesday to all charges.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Matthew Hardy III argued against throwing out the "three strikes" provision and called Duarte a "street terrorist."
While Hardy conceded that the "law could have been written a lot more carefully," he argued that its intent is clear: "to punish the small but hard-core number of criminals responsible for most of our violent crimes." He said the district attorney's office has not yet decided whether to appeal Perren's ruling.
"This law needs to be fixed, either at the Legislature or at the appeal level," Hardy said.
In December, Perren ordered Duarte, who was 17 at the time of the crime spree, to stand trial as an adult. At the same time, prosecutors said they wanted to apply the "three strikes" law to the case.
Duarte was convicted in juvenile court of robbery and attempted robbery in 1994.
Under "three strikes," a third felony conviction would have sent Duarte to prison for at least 25 years. Without that added penalty, he faces no more than 15 years behind bars if convicted of robbery, and could get probation, Hardy said.
Defense attorney William Maxwell argued successfully Tuesday that the state law requires that juvenile offenders be given so-called fitness hearings before their convictions can be used as strikes in adult court.
Fitness hearings determine if a suspect under 18 will be tried as an adult or a juvenile. Such proceedings were not held prior to Duarte's two previous convictions in juvenile court, Maxwell said.
Further, Maxwell argued, the law is vague regarding which juvenile crimes constitute strikes in adult court.
Perren agreed and said the state Legislature needs to rewrite the statute, which Gov. Pete Wilson signed into law in March 1994. Proposition 184, which is nearly identical to the bill Wilson signed, was passed by voters in November of that year.
"The people who wrote the law wrote it very poorly," Maxwell said. "And the people who voted for it did not know what they were voting for."
Duarte's parents attended Tuesday's hearing and expressed relief over the judge's ruling.
"We are feeling much better today," said Alicia Garcia, Duarte's mother. She has said that if her son is convicted of robbery he deserves to be punished, but that a 25-year sentence is too harsh.