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Compassion Leads Jurors to a Successful Plea for Mercy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The defendant’s guilt was never a serious question. He had been caught red-handed trying to steal three guitars from a Koreatown church sanctuary.

But several jurors who convicted Keith T. Adams were troubled that the church would even press charges. After rendering their verdict, they asked to meet with the judge.

Only then did they learn that the three guitars could send Adams to prison for 25 years to life--his third strike under California’s “three strikes” law.

The six jurors in the judge’s chambers were stunned. “I mean we were reeling,” said one, a woman in her 40s who lives in Santa Monica. “Twenty-five years for attempting to steal three guitars?”

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What followed between Adams’ conviction and his sentencing is the story of how this juror--herself the victim of an armed robbery two months before the trial--set out to temper justice with mercy.

It is the story of how she was haunted, as some California jurors increasingly are, by cases involving relatively minor criminal offenses, wondering but never knowing whether a suspect is on his third “strike.”

And in Los Angeles’ often-volatile climate of ethnic relations, this is also the story of how a homeless African American parolee found compassion from both a white woman driven by her sense of fairness and a Korean American minister who shared her feelings.

The tension underlying the case grew out of the 2-year-old “three strikes” law and the fact that jurors do not know when they deliberate whether a conviction will lead to a sentence far harsher than they had anticipated.

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The juror from Santa Monica--identified here only as Ruth because she agreed to be interviewed on the condition her identity not be published--said misgivings built up after the verdict.

“A lot of us were upset that we were finding a man guilty for what we thought was not a very significant crime,” she said. She offered a metaphor: “I thought I was turning on a light bulb, and I was pulling the execution lever.”

She was one of three whites on the panel, along with seven African Americans and two Asian Americans.

Adams, who has given different birth dates to authorities indicating he is either 33 or 34, was charged with breaking into the Lois Angeles Dong Sang Church on West 9th Street in October and trying to steal the guitars--two electric and one acoustic.

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Church volunteers and staff members trapped Adams in a corridor between the sanctuary and the church parking lot and held him for police. He was convicted April 1 after a brief trial.

A 1988 conviction for an armed home invasion robbery--a strike for each victim--qualified him for “three strikes” prosecution at this trial.

After the jurors met with the judge to express their misgivings, with the prosecution and defense attorneys also present, Ruth started making phone calls. She was “trying to find out more about the defendant, more about his history--something to make me feel better about his 25 years in jail.”

She talked to Deputy Dist. Atty. Laurie Helfing, who prosecuted the case. “She tried to put my misgivings at rest,” Ruth said. “I did feel a bit better after talking to her--not great, but a little better.”

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Nearly a month passed before she spoke to Earl C. Broady Jr., Adams’ defense attorney. Broady told her that she could write to the trial judge, who still had the option of sentencing the case as a misdemeanor rather than as a felony.

She faxed her letter to Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George Wu on May 20--three days before he was scheduled to sentence Adams.

That evening, she drove to the church and copied its telephone number from a van parked outside. The next day, she called the church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Ki Hyung Han.

“I told Rev. Han that the case was not over,” she said. “I told him that the sentencing would be on Thursday. It was hard to communicate with him, and I was not sure how much English he understood.

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“I told him that it was a ‘three strikes’ case and that the defendant would get 25 years to life.”

Han’s response: “Too long.”

He asked for Broady’s address and fax number, promising: “I will do something about it.”

The Rev. Jae Pung Kim, one of Han’s associate pastors, helped draft the letter to Broady.

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“I know what [Adams] did is a bad thing,” said Kim. “But 25 years? That is too much.”

The church has been burglarized several times, Kim said, but Adams was the only burglar caught.

“In America they give a lot of second chances,” Kim said. “We have to give a second chance too.”

The case against Adams is what lawyers call a “wobbler,” meaning prosecutors could have filed it as a misdemeanor or a felony.

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“My guy was homeless,” Broady said. “No one was hurt. Nothing was taken.”

Prosecutor Helfing was unavailable for comment, but Deputy Dist. Atty. Lee Mitchell, one of her supervisors, said prosecutors try to err on the side of caution when considering whether to file “three strikes” allegations.

A third strike was warranted in this case, Mitchell said, because Adams was on parole from a serious felony--residential robbery--that had several victims.

“You feel it is your duty to protect society,” Mitchell said.

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When prosecutors consider third-strike cases, he said, generally they consider a defendant’s record.

“If a person possesses a rock of cocaine but has a history of armed robbery, we want to stop him before he robs again,” Mitchell said.

“We look to see if he has a lifetime achievement award and has earned the ‘three strikes’ charge,” Mitchell said.

Judge Wu had requests from Broady, Han and Ruth to sentence the case as a misdemeanor. Helfing wanted it treated as a felony.

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“I’ve never had a jury express itself as adamantly as in this particular situation,” the judge said in an interview. “Frankly, that was a factor I considered. The reverend from the church was also a very strong factor in my mind.”

The court can consider jurors’ views where punishment is concerned, Wu said.

“Their view, while not controlling, is a factor I think I can consider,” he said. “I don’t mind the jurors commenting. I view jurors as part of the community at large.”

Loyola Law School professor Laurie L. Levenson, a former federal prosecutor, said the “three strikes” law has made jurors “more curious now and more concerned” about the consequences of their verdicts. “Therefore, jurors are more uncomfortable if they think they are being used to impose penalties more severe than they think are warranted.”

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On the day of sentencing, Wu spoke from the bench about the letters from Ruth and the Rev. Han. Then, choosing to treat the case as a misdemeanor, he pronounced sentence on Adams: one year in County Jail and three years probation. Adams also has to serve one year for violating parole.

Ruth was not in the courtroom. She called later to learn the sentence.

The Sunday after Adams’ sentence, Ruth visited the Dong San Church, vainly hoping to slip unnoticed into a pew near the back.

“Toward the end of the service, someone was speaking in Korean at the pulpit, and all of a sudden every face in the church turned to look at me,” she said. “I kept thinking that they were not looking at me, but at something behind me.

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“Finally an usher came and asked me to stand. There were waves and waves of applause. The minister continued to speak in Korean, but he said something I understood: ‘Three strikes.’ ”

Days later, the Rev. Kim reflected on the case:

“We did a small thing. But that is what a Christian is supposed to do. Dong San means ‘hill’ in Korean. We want our church to be a hill of healing, a hill of holiness.”


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