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Arguing Three Strikes

Publication Date: 
May 23, 2010
The New York Times Magazine
Emily Bazelon

The New York Times Magazine ran this feature about California's Three Strikes law and the extraordinary work of our Criminal Defense Clinic's students, who are the primary litigators in these sentencing review cases and who deserve immense credit for their tireless work and accomplishments. This story highlights the saga of one of the Clinic's many clients:

One day last fall, Norman Williams sat drinking hot chocolate with his lawyer, Michael Romano, at a Peet’s coffee in Palo Alto, Calif. At an outdoor table, Williams began to talk about how he’d gone from serving a life sentence at Folsom State Prison to sitting there in the sun. “After being shut down for so many years. I didn’t believe it,” he said of the judge’s decision to release him in April 2009.

Williams, who is 46, was a homeless drug addict in 1997 when he was convicted of petty theft, for stealing a floor jack from a tow truck. It was the last step on his path to serving life. In 1982, Williams burglarized an apartment that was being fumigated: he was hapless enough to be robbed at gunpoint on his way out, and later he helped the police recover the stolen property. In 1992, he stole two hand drills and some other tools from an art studio attached to a house; the owner confronted him, and he dropped everything and fled. Still, for the theft of the floor jack, Williams was sentenced to life in prison under California’s repeat-offender law: three strikes and you’re out.


Romano saw Cooley’s list as an opportunity. After working as a criminal-defense lawyer at a San Francisco firm, he started a clinic at Stanford Law School in 2006 to appeal the life sentences of some three-strikes convicts. In search of clients at the outset, Romano and his students wrote to Williams at Folsom about the possibility of appealing his conviction. Most prisoners quickly follow up when the clinic offers free legal help. But Williams didn’t write back. At Peet’s, Williams said he’d been too nervous. “I didn’t want to use the wrong words,” he said.


IF THERE’S A WAY to reform three strikes, it may follow Norman Williams’s route out of prison. Michael Romano, who is 38, got his client released without opposition from the L.A. district attorney by forging a working relationship with Cooley’s office. The 63-year-old Republican prosecutor seems an unlikely ally for a young defense lawyer. He joined the D.A.’s office straight out of law school. His office notched more death sentences last year than the state of Texas, and his lunchmates include Pete Wilson, the former governor who signed three strikes into law. Yet despite his conservative bona fides, Cooley shares the conviction that some number of third-strike offenders like Norman Williams don’t belong in prison for life.


MICHAEL ROMANO has another, complementary strategy for changing the law. He has won victories for 13 three-strikes lifers in two years, 5 of them with the help of Cooley’s office, and he sees that small number of victories as making a case for larger reform. (He was on a panel I moderated at Yale Law School last month.) While that may sound far-fetched, the tactic has worked before. Romano’s boss, Lawrence Marshall, helped prove the innocence of 13 death-row inmates in Illinois in the late 1990s. His work set in motion a reassessment of the death penalty. A result was a statewide moratorium on executions that has held for a decade. “The hardest step is to get people’s attention,” says Marshall, associate dean for clinical education at Stanford. “And you can only get it with sympathetic cases.”


In court, Romano and his students don’t simply argue that their clients are minor offenders who don’t deserve to spend the rest of their lives in prison. That route to release is mostly blocked by the Supreme Court’s twin rulings on three strikes. In 2003, the justices voted 5-4 to reject the argument that three strikes violates the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel-and-unusual punishment. Because of criminal histories, the high court let stand the life sentences for Leandro Andrade, convicted of a third strike when he shoplifted videotapes from two Kmarts, and Gary Ewing, who walked out of a store with three golf clubs in a leg of his pants.


Romano argues that, as in capital cases, his clients deserve to ask for lesser sentences based on “mitigating evidence” — often of child abuse, mental illness or mental retardation. Romano’s students track down clients’ old files, ask about their childhoods and pry confirmation out of family members. From Norman Williams’s juvenile files and probation reports, Romano’s students pieced together a story of unbroken woe. The 8th of 12 children, Williams grew up with a mother who was a binge drinker. She pimped out Williams and his brothers to men she knew. A social worker wrote, “These men paid the boys money to perform anal intercourse on the boys and they . . . gave the money to their mother for wine.” As an adult, Williams became a cocaine addict and lived on the streets of Long Beach.

Romano’s students laid out this mitigating evidence, which hadn’t been introduced at trial, in a 56-page habeas brief before the state court in Long Beach last year. They got back a one-sentence order denying their claim.

Frustrated, Romano took the habeas petition to one of Cooley’s deputies, Brentford Ferreira. Would he agree that after 12 years in prison, Williams had done enough time? Would he say so to the judge?


Norman Williams will soon move into his own apartment in Palo Alto. None of the other clients for whom the Stanford clinic has won release have gotten in trouble. And Romano and his students recently started representing Gregory Taylor, who is still serving life in San Luis Obispo prison.