WASHINGTON — The first criminal suspect to be charged under the federal government's new "three strikes" law has been indicted in Iowa, marking a turning point that could shift significant numbers of felons from state to federal courts and prisons.
Justice Department officials Thursday identified the first three strikes defendant as Thomas Lee Farmer, an accused grocery store robber who has state convictions for murder, murder conspiracy and armed robbery.
If convicted under Iowa law, Farmer could have been sentenced to no more than 25 years in prison. Under the new federal provisions in the crime bill signed by President Clinton on Sept. 13, Farmer was indicted this week by a federal grand jury for robbery and will receive, if convicted, a term of life imprisonment without parole.
"This is the beginning of a definite trend by federal prosecutors around the country," a Justice Department official predicted. He said that federal lawyers will cooperate with state prosecutors to take over cases against any defendants who have been convicted of two previous violent crimes.
Some criminal defense lawyers and other critics see problems developing from the trend, including the further overcrowding of prisons and reduction of negotiated plea agreements that tend to prevent logjams in both state and federal courts.
Under the "three strikes" law, a defendant who has had two previous convictions--either state or federal--for violent crimes will face a mandatory life term if his third conviction is for a serious federal offense, including a drug crime. White collar offenses, such as bank fraud or wire fraud, are exempt.
U.S. Atty. Stephen J. Rapp of Waterloo, Iowa, said that he had cooperated with state prosecutors to obtain a federal indictment against Farmer, on condition that state robbery charges be dismissed against him. The new federal law provides a heavier penalty for Farmer, 42, because Iowa has not enacted its own "three strikes and you're out" law.
The California Legislature passed a three strikes measure earlier this year and state voters are being asked to approve a parallel ballot measure next week.
Kevin Ohlson, special counsel to the U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., said that prosecutors across the country will take advantage of the longer prison sentences provided by Congress for persons who commit repeated serious street crimes like murder, assault, rape, robbery, kidnaping, carjacking and firearms offenses.
"If there's a situation where we have a violent defendant for whom we know we could get a long prison term without parole instead of only a 10-year term, for example, then we would bring it in federal court," Ohlson said.