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Pizza Thief Gets 25 Years to Life : Crime: Judge cites five prior felony convictions in sentencing Jerry Dewayne Williams under 'three strikes' law. Defense attorney says he will appeal 'excessive punishment.'

March 03, 1995|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jerry Dewayne Williams was sentenced to prison for 25 years to life Thursday under the state's "three strikes" law for stealing a slice of pepperoni pizza.

The 27-year-old Williams sat silent as Torrance Superior Court Judge Donald F. Pitts levied the sentence, citing Williams' five prior felony convictions, his habit of finding trouble and the 1994 "three strikes" law as reasons for the punishment. Before announcing the sentence, Pitts had denied a defense motion filed by Williams' attorney, Deputy Public Defender Arnold T. Lester, which argued that a 25-years-to-life sentence for stealing a piece of pizza constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Lester indicated that he would appeal the sentence, saying there are "certain offenses that, no matter the (defendant's) background, don't call for this excessive punishment."

But Heling Craig, who sat through the majority of the January trial with a small contingent of Redondo Beach residents who are "three strikes" supporters, said Williams got what he deserved.

"It's like, hey, this guy's had five chances and he still goes out and commits a crime," Craig said.

Williams, a 6-foot, 4-inch Compton warehouseman, was arrested near Craig's ice cream shop at the Redondo Beach Pier last July. He and a friend, prosecutors would contend, somewhat intoxicated and possibly playing a game of "truth or dare," approached four youngsters dining on an extra-large pepperoni pizza. Each of the men asked for a piece, and after being refused, each took a slice anyway.

The friend was never prosecuted, but in January, a jury found Williams guilty of petty theft. Typically a misdemeanor, that charge was bumped up to a felony because of his prior convictions for robbery, attempted robbery, unauthorized use of a motor vehicle and possession of a controlled substance.

Williams has become a poster child of sorts for those who say the "three strikes" law is uneven, needlessly punitive and so costly that the public will eventually have to reconsider it.

"No matter how many pizza thieves it sends to prison, this law is not going to make our streets safer," said Allan Parachini, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Other recent cases of small-time criminals facing big-time sentences under the law have brought additional criticism.

In Tulare County, 23-year-old Duane Silva, who has an IQ of 70 and suffers from manic depression, according to the Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice, was sentenced to 30 years to life for stealing a video recorder and a coin collection from his neighbors. His previous "strikes" were for setting fire to trash barrels and the glove compartment of another neighbor's a car.

In Pomona, Michael Garcia, 35, whose "strikes" are a nonviolent robbery and theft, according to the center, could receive 25 years to life for stealing a $5.62 package of meat.

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But prosecutors and proponents of the law argue that "three strikes" offers two chances, and repeat offenders are being punished not for their final convictions but for a history of wrongdoing. Williams "is a habitual criminal, and that is what we are sentencing," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Bill Gravlin, who prosecuted Williams. "The people of California are sick of revolving-door justice, they're sick of judges who are soft on crime. It is wrong to focus on the last offense."

Lester, Williams' attorney, shook his head and disagreed after his client was sentenced. "Seems to me that society is going crazy in the punitive nature of these statutes," he said.

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