Law students help free three-strikes offenders
Norman Williams feared he would be an old man if he was ever allowed to leave the granite walls of Folsom State Prison. The Long Beach native was serving a possible life sentence under California’s three-strikes law. His crime: stealing a car jack and tools from a tow truck.
After a decade without a visitor, two law school students and their instructor arrived offering Williams a reason to hope.
Sitting at a metal table in the prison’s visiting area, the trio told him they believed his punishment was cruelly harsh. Though they cautioned that it was a legal long shot, they said they wanted to try to reduce his sentence.
Two weeks ago, Williams, 45, walked out of prison a free man.
His case marks one of several recent victories for a Stanford law clinic where students are devoted to reversing what they view as miscarriages of justice under the three-strikes law.
Their work involves a new twist on a strategy employed by innocence projects nationwide in which students have helped overturn wrongful convictions and sparked debate over the death penalty.
Rather than championing the innocent, the Stanford students are advocating for prisoners guilty of what they view as relatively minor offenses and raising the question of how much prison time is too much.
The effort touches a nerve. Fifteen years ago, California voters overwhelmingly approved the three-strikes sentencing law. The state rejected a reform initiative five years ago.
The Stanford clinic is taking aim at the most controversial part of the law, which imposes at least 25 years to life in prison even for a nonviolent felony, such as petty theft or drug possession, as long as an offender’s criminal history includes at least two violent or serious crimes.
Students and their instructors hope to redress what they call grossly unfair sentences for minor crimes and spur changes in the law. Their clients, they say, illustrate how the justice system has unfairly ensnared low-level defendants whose crimes are often linked to mental illness, drug abuse or extreme poverty.
“These people fall between the cracks,” said Jennifer Robinson, who recently graduated. “It’s an awful situation that I don’t think that the voters envisioned.”
Supporters of three-strikes disagree.
Mike Reynolds, who wrote the three-strikes law after his 18-year-old daughter’s murder in Fresno, said many prisoners who have minor third strikes also have long, violent criminal records. He said voters knew exactly whom they were putting away when they approved the law and called the Stanford clinic’s work misguided.
“Do they understand that they could be turning someone loose who could get out and hurt somebody?” he asked.
Since September, students have persuaded judges to lessen the sentences of four prisoners, including Williams. Three have been released so far, having already served their reduced prison terms, which ranged from six to 10 years.
More than 8,400 inmates are serving possible life terms under the three-strikes law, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Of those, more than 1,300 were sentenced for drug offenses and nearly 2,500 for property crimes. A department spokeswoman said the agency has not compiled data on what serious or violent felonies those inmates previously committed.
Since its launch in 2006, the Stanford Criminal Defense Clinic has been deluged with letters from inmates and their relatives pleading for help. None have attorneys to handle their appeals, the clinic says.
Instructors at the clinic sift through the letters and review appeals records in search of clients who appear to be good candidates for their help. Most of the inmates they aid have nonviolent criminal records.
“There’s a huge number of people who fit into that category,” said Michael S. Romano, a Stanford law school lecturer who launched the clinic.
Around the state, prosecutors are divided on how to apply the law. In Los Angeles County, Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley rarely seeks life sentences for repeat offenders unless the “third strike” involves a violent or serious crime. Serious crimes include such offenses as residential burglary and selling cocaine to a minor.
But many district attorneys adopt a more aggressive approach.
Before Cooley took office in 2000, predecessor Gil Garcetti sought possible life prison terms in nearly all eligible cases. It was during that period, in 1997, that Norman Williams was sentenced.
At Stanford, Mark Melahn and Jesse Goodman asked to work on Williams’ case after seeing his name on a list compiled by instructors.
Williams’ two previous strikes were residential burglaries. His most recent crime was a petty theft -- an offense that would have been prosecuted as a misdemeanor but for his earlier theft convictions.
“It seemed like an especially egregious case,” said Melahn, who recently graduated from law school.
The law allows judges not to impose a life sentence if a case does not reflect the spirit of the three-strikes law. To make such a finding, judges must look at the background and character of a defendant and the likelihood he will commit more crimes.
The judge who sentenced Williams knew only about his criminal history, which included numerous arrests for drug offenses and burglaries starting when he was 10. Williams’ defense attorney told the court nothing else about her client’s past.
But when Melahn and Goodman dug through records, they found a disturbing portrait of his life.
Williams, they learned, had been raised as one of 12 children in a household without a father and with an alcoholic mother who abandoned the children for days at a time.
At 11, he was discovered by social workers alone with a younger sister in their South Los Angeles home overrun by flies. Windows were broken out. Trash cans were filled with rotting garbage. The bathroom was filthy and reeked of excrement. There was no food in the home.
Social workers took the youngest children, including Norman, into custody. He and some of his siblings told the workers that they had been raped by friends of their mother’s, according to court records. His mother’s boyfriend whipped him with electrical cords.
Williams lived most of his adult life either behind bars or on the streets. He earned cash by collecting cans for recycling, but also stole to buy food and drugs. He became addicted to crack cocaine.
In court papers, Melahn and Goodman argued that Williams’ horrific upbringing meant he should be spared a life sentence.
They noted that he had an IQ of 71, barely above mentally retarded; had never acted violently; and was known as gentle and caring to his family, having donated a kidney to an older brother. After more than a decade in prison, he was also free from the grip of drugs.
“If people knew Norman, I don’t think that we would have a three-strikes law like we do now,” said Goodman, who graduated last year and works as an attorney in San Francisco.
Romano, their instructor, contacted the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. Prosecutors were impressed with the students’ work but concerned about how Williams would survive outside prison. They agreed to offer their support only after the clinic arranged for Williams to stay at a Palo Alto homeless shelter where he could get counseling and enroll in a job training program.
“I felt with those safeguards . . . this was not only just but safe,” said Brentford Ferreira, a supervising prosecutor who handled the case.
On April 6, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James Pierce, who had originally sentenced Williams to life, changed his sentence to 10 years in prison. Williams, who had already served 13 years, was released April 24.
Stanford instructors say they try to connect their clients with counseling and other services to help them adjust to life outside prison. But they add that their work is aimed at righting injustices, whether or not their clients return to crime.
In the weeks since his release, Williams has slept at homeless shelters near Stanford and enrolled in a local job program, where he temporarily picks up trash.
A stocky man with a shaved head and broad smile, Williams said he knew about the three-strikes law before he stole again but did not realize that it could apply to petty thefts. He said he is grateful to the university’s students for giving him a second chance and is determined not to return to prison.
“I’ve changed my way of thinking,” he said. “Even though I’m out, those two strikes are still over my head.”
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Prisoners aided by clinic
Since September, law school students at Stanford University have persuaded judges to reduce prison terms for four inmates sentenced under the state’s three-strikes law. They are:
Freed Nov. 21
Sentenced in 2000 to 26 years to life
Criminal history: Mostly drug and theft convictions, including residential burglary in 1981 and 1985
Third strike: Possession of a piece of cotton containing heroin. Together the drug and cotton weighed 0.029 grams.
County of prosecution: Kern
Background: Vietnam veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. Became addicted to heroin.
New sentence: Seven years in prison
Freed April 30
Sentenced in 1996 to 25 years to life
Criminal history: Mostly drug and theft convictions, including two residential burglaries committed in October 1991
Third strike: Stealing a van’s radio
County of prosecution: Los Angeles
Background: Neglected by his mother. Physically abused by his father and his girlfriend. Became homeless and addicted to drugs.
New sentence: Six years
Scheduled for release next year
Sentenced in 2005 to 30 years to life
Criminal history: Convicted of attempted robbery and assault with a firearm involving an incident when he was 17. Also convicted of making threats and drunk driving.
Third strike: Threatening to kill another motorist after a minor car collision; charged as a serious felony
County of prosecution: Los Angeles
Background: Born to a 15-year-old mother who became a heroin addict. Adopted by his grandmother; borderline mentally retarded; an alcoholic.
New sentence: Seven years and eight months
Freed April 24
Sentenced in 1997 to 25 years to life
Criminal history: Mostly drug and theft convictions, including residential burglary convictions in 1982 and 1992
Third strike: Stealing a car jack and tools from a tow truck
County of prosecution: Los Angeles
Background: Beaten, sexually abused and neglected as a child. Placed in foster care. Became homeless and addicted to crack cocaine.
New sentence: 10 years
Source: Stanford University’s Criminal Defense Clinic and Superior Court records