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A Scramble to Scrutinize '3 Strikes' Law : Courts: Prosecutors and defense attorneys look for ways new measure could be circumvented.

March 11, 1994|DEAN E. MURPHY and ANDREA FORD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Uncertainty about California's new "three strikes and you're out" law pervaded court deliberations in Los Angeles County on Thursday, with judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys in the country's busiest judicial system scurrying to make sense of its strict--and sometimes confusing--sentencing requirements.

Judge Cecil Mills, supervisor for Los Angeles Superior Court, called on several top judges to determine if the already crowded court system can handle an expected surge in jury trials. Court officials are anticipating a flood of requests for such trials from convicted felons who previously might have accepted plea bargains but now face stiff mandatory sentences if found guilty under the new law. "The courts are already on the edge of collapse," said Acting Public Defender David Meyer, who added that the deluge of jury trials could force criminal cases into civil courtrooms or the hiring of additional judges. "Major systemic problems of this nature are only going to make it more serious."

At the same time, the district attorney's office summoned a team of nine top prosecutors to analyze the new statute word by word and begin anticipating arguments that defense attorneys will make in efforts to circumvent its harsh sentencing requirements.

Under the law that took effect Monday, anyone who has two prior convictions for serious or violent felonies and commits any felony on a third offense must be sentenced to a minimum of 25 years to life. The law also prescribes mandatory sentences for criminals who commit a second felony after having committed a prior serious or violent felony, as well as felons who had committed certain crimes as juveniles.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 12, 1994 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Column 2 Metro Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
'Three strikes' law--A headline in Friday's Times may have implied that prosecutors are attempting to circumvent the state's new "three strikes" sentencing law. In fact, as the story stated, the district attorney's office is analyzing arguments that defense attorneys may raise against the law.

"We need to stay ahead of the curve on this one," Assistant Dist. Atty. Dan Murphy said. "We expect that the longer defense lawyers have to look at this statute the more creative they will become in finding ways to attack it."

At least three new cases were filed by Los Angeles County prosecutors Thursday under the new law, including charges against a man who allegedly hit his mother in the head with a hammer, a 36-year-old man accused of stealing a car and trying to run over a pursuing officer, and a convicted robber who allegedly burglarized cars.

Public defenders and defense lawyers also began devising strategies for their clients, with most saying the statute's harsh penalties will force them to recommend against plea bargains. The overwhelming majority of cases in Los Angeles and around the country are resolved through plea arrangements.

"Why would anyone plead guilty knowing they're facing 25 years to life?" asked Vincent James Oliver, a defense attorney. "At least you have a shot if you can get one juror on your side."

Questions also focused on confusion surrounding the new law's effect on death penalty and juvenile cases.

Los Angeles County Deputy Public Defender Charles Gessler, who coordinates death penalty defenses, said ambiguous language in the new law can be interpreted as doing away with the death penalty.

In juvenile cases, some attorneys worry that the new law will deny youngsters due-process rights because juveniles are not tried before a jury, but an offense may count as a "strike." Also, prosecutors said the law subjects juveniles to a harsher standard than adults because certain crimes committed by 16- and 17-year-olds count as "strikes," but comparable offenses committed by adults do not.

Times staff writer Dan Morain contributed to this story.

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