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Three Strikes Law Still Controversial

Publication Date: 
April 20, 2011
Source: 
Daily Journal
Author: 
Brandonn Ortiz

Lecturer Michael Romano is quoted in Daily Journal expressing his concern for prisoners punished with third-strike sentences after committing only lesser non-violent crimes for their third felony convictions.

Shane Taylor was drinking a beer on a ridge overlooking Lake Success in Porterville when two police officers asked to see his identification. One of the officers noticed a small bag protruding from Taylor's wallet, which sat inside his car that night on June 20, 1996, according to court records. The officer opened it to find 0.14 grams of methamphetamine - about one-tenth of a sugar packet, with a street value of $10.

Taylor, because of two prior nonviolent felony convictions 11 years earlier, was sentenced to 25 years to life in October 1996, about two years after California voters overwhelmingly approved the controversial "three strikes" mandatory sentencing scheme. The law mandates 25-years-to-life sentences for defendants with three qualifying felony convictions.

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Michael Romano, co-founder of Stanford Law School's Three Strikes Project, which appeals third-strike sentences, is troubled that a significant minority of those prisoners were not convicted of violent crimes for their last strike. State corrections data from January show that 44 percent of third-strike prisoners were convicted of drug or property crimes.

Romano's students frequently take on cases involving egregious errors or little to no investigation by defense attorneys at the trial level.

In Taylor's case, for example, the trial judge was never told of Taylor's traumatic childhood. He was raised by a drug-addicted prostitute mother who gave drugs to him at a young age, Stanford law student Susannah Karlsson wrote in her appeal of Taylor's habeas petition, which is pending before the 5th District Court of Appeal. He was beaten by her various boyfriends and frequently witnessed domestic violence, she wrote.

Karlsson argues that the trial judge, who submitted an affidavit in support of Taylor's appeal, would have struck one of Taylor's prior strikes had he known about his history. Taylor's original prosecutor and defense attorney also support the appeal.

Karlsson, who will argue the case if it is accepted for oral argument, said Taylor should be resentenced because of ineffective assistance of counsel.

"Case law is quite clear that investigation [by the defense attorney] is, in fact, required," Karlsson said. "A lot of what we uncovered resulted from very simple questions about very basic facts about Mr. Taylor's life story."