Life on a New Track Could Be Derailed by Sentencing Dispute

Times Staff Writer

Pamela Martinez served seven years in prison for pinching a $30 toolbox, yet authorities say she still hasn’t paid her debt to society.

More than two years after she was released from prison, Martinez said, she has put her life in order. She quit drugs, got a job at Home Depot, rented a cramped apartment outside San Diego and bought a car. “I’m trying to be a poster child for rehabilitation,” she said.

In a dispute that stems from the state’s complicated sentencing formulas, the Department of Corrections and the California attorney general say Martinez owes the state 65 more days in prison.

She had been ordered to report to the California Institution for Women near Chino on Tuesday. But on Monday, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge granted her a temporary stay so she and supporters could plead their case before the state Supreme Court.


Martinez, 51, said she would lose everything she had struggled to build if she were returned to prison. “I lose my apartment, my job, my credit cards and I go back to poverty,” Martinez said. “I’m paying taxes now. What good does it do if I go back to prison?”

By Martinez’s account, her life has been a roller coaster that bottomed out with the toolbox theft.

By the age of 21, Martinez was working as a ski patrol paramedic in Aspen, Colo., a job that exposed her to many temptations.

“I kind of got up in the fast lane in Colorado,” Martinez said. “I was hanging around with high rollers and taking planes all over the world. The next thing I knew, I was dabbling with drugs. I didn’t know anything was wrong.”


Chaos followed. Martinez said she became addicted to heroin and abused other drugs, and found herself in repeated brushes with the law. In 1978 she was convicted of robbery when, she said, she lent her car to friends, who held up a liquor store. In 1987, she was convicted of second-degree robbery for shoplifting at Sears and leading a security guard on a chase. In between there were bounced checks and petty thefts.

Martinez said her life fell apart in 1995, when her husband was diagnosed with a terminal illness and she tried to operate their landscaping business on her own. She showed up drunk and under the influence of drugs at a potential job site and a fight ensued with the homeowner. She was arrested for stealing the man’s toolbox.

A jury convicted Martinez of petty theft. Because she had prior convictions, Martinez was sentenced under the three-strikes law to 25 years to life. While in custody, Martinez said, she took refuge in the prison’s law library and taught herself to be a jailhouse lawyer. In 1999, she persuaded a court to overturn the conviction on the basis of inadequate representation by her lawyer. When the judge ordered a new trial, Martinez pleaded guilty to petty theft with a prior conviction and was sentenced to nine years.

Martinez was released from prison on her own recognizance during arguments over how much time she would receive as credit for what she had served.


Thus began five years of legal wrangling.

“Basically, this is a matter of mathematics,” Martinez said. “I say it should be calculated one way and they say it should be calculated another. I’m hopeful though. I’m an eternal optimist.”

Under state formulas, prisoners are credited for time served before a conviction plus half of that time. (Thus if they served two years before conviction, they are credited for three.) In prison after conviction, the rate is lower. Inmates are credited for actual time served plus 20% of that time.

Martinez, who spent a total of seven years in custody, insists that she should be credited at the higher rate. The Department of Corrections and the California attorney general disagree.


Among the figures who have weighed in on her behalf is Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In a letter sent last week, he asked the Supreme Court to consider granting Martinez clemency.

“Ms. Martinez has been out of prison on her own recognizance while her case was on appeal for approximately 2 1/2 years,” Schwarzenegger wrote. “During this time it appears she has led a law-abiding life, been gainfully employed and received a great deal of community support and encouragement. It is my feeling that Ms. Martinez should be given the opportunity to demonstrate that she has truly turned her life around and will continue to be a productive member of society. I would submit that her sentence be commuted to time served and that she be allowed to commence her period of parole forthwith.”

The governor’s appeal and an outpouring of support from Martinez’s co-workers, employer, friends and activists have taken the Department of Corrections by surprise


“We were expecting her to show up today,” said Margot Bach, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections. “We just learned that this was now being considered by the Supreme Court. We’re not going to comment on it at this point.”

If Martinez is to be granted clemency, four of seven Supreme Court justices must vote in her favor. The state Board of Prison Terms will also consider her case and make its own recommendations.

“Ultimately, clemency is decided on what’s in the best interest of justice,” said Bill Sessa, a board spokesman.

Martinez said officials had to consider her background. Her life, she said, was the story of having too much, too soon and too fast.


Efforts to publicize Martinez’s predicament were led by Lisa Scott, a documentary filmmaker who is campaigning to amend the state’s three-strikes law. Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles) took the matter to the governor.

Scott said it was through her documentary filmmaking and involvement in the three-strikes amendment effort that she met Martinez.

“People say, ‘So what, 65 days -- that’s not the end of the world.’ Well, yeah -- if you have a nice savings account or a new car you can sell. When Pam gets out, she’ll be impoverished. What’s to become of her at 51?” the filmmaker asked.

“As a citizen of the state of California, partially it was me who was sending her back,” Scott said. “I couldn’t sleep at night knowing I didn’t try to right this.”