To hear him tell his story, John Wesley Ewell was the victim of an overly harsh criminal justice system.
The South Los Angeles hairstylist complained to journalists over the last decade about the unfairness of the state's tough three-strikes law, saying he lived in fear that even a small offense would land him back in prison for life.
He even appeared on the "The Montel Williams Show" to argue the case against three strikes. A caption that flashed on the screen when Ewell spoke read: "Afraid to leave his house because he has 2 'Strikes.'"
But Ewell is now charged with murdering four people in a series of home invasion robberies that terrorized the South Bay this fall. On Tuesday, he pleaded not guilty during a brief appearance at the Airport Courthouse.
Far from embodying the severity of the justice system, Ewell benefited from its lenience over the last 16 years, according to a Times review of court records and interviews.
Ewell has a lengthy criminal history that includes two robbery convictions from the 1980s. Nevertheless, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office decided on four occasions against seeking to use the full weight of the three-strikes law when he was charged with new crimes.
And this year, after Ewell was arrested three times for allegedly stealing from Home Depot stores, a judge agreed to delay sending Ewell to prison so he could take care of some medical problems.
It was during that delay, authorities say, that Ewell robbed three homes and killed the victims.
"He should have been in prison a long time ago," said Leamon "Kelly" Turnage, whose parents were among the victims. "It is a shock to me that no one is willing to take responsibility for letting this killer go."
Ewell's case is likely to fuel more debate about the practice of many California prosecutors to seek less than the maximum sentence for some three-strikers.
Under the law, offenders with two previous convictions for serious or violent crimes can be sentenced to prison for 25 years to life if they are convicted of another felony, no matter how minor. But most prosecutors use discretion in deciding when to seek life terms. Since 2000, the L.A. County district attorney's office has generally prohibited prosecutors from seeking possible life sentences when a defendant's third strike is not serious or violent.
Prosecutors repeatedly exercised this discretion in Ewell's favor.
Critics argue that the district attorney's policy fails to adequately protect society. The law, they say, deliberately counted minor crimes as third strikes to put away repeat offenders before they hurt other victims.
Prosecutors say it is unfair to suggest that they — or anyone else — could have predicted that Ewell would turn to such violence. At 53, he appeared to be little more than a petty thief and hardly fit the profile of a killer.
"I really don't think anybody could pretend to anticipate that … this guy would suddenly go from stealing things from Home Depot to murdering old people," said Los Angeles County Head Deputy Dist. Atty. John Lynch.
The district attorney's policy has won widespread support as a just way of dealing with minor offenders who might have serious criminal pasts. Although a handful of criminals have benefited from the policy only to later commit violent crimes, the vast majority of offenders prosecuted under the policy have not gone on to kill or carry out other serious crimes.
Detectives describe Ewell as a man who led a double life. Residents of his Harbor Gateway community of Los Angeles knew him as a friendly handyman willing to help others. But investigators said he was a career criminal whose offenses stretched over more than 30 years.
In 1985, Ewell was convicted of helping to rob a jogger after she had checked her bank balance at an ATM. Nearly four years later, Ewell, who had a cocaine habit in the 1980s, was one of several people found guilty of robbing a motorist parked in an alley, court records show.
"Don't move if you don't want to be hurt," he allegedly told the victim before binding the man's hands and taking his wallet, watch and truck.
In 1994, California adopted the three-strikes law. Ewell's two robbery convictions each counted as a strike under the new law. Later that year, Ewell deposited a stolen check for $28,000 into his bank account. He was charged with check forgery, a potential third strike.
The L.A. County district attorney's office could have sought a 25-years-to-life prison sentence for Ewell. But in return for his pleading guilty, prosecutors instead agreed to a reduced sentence of seven years in prison.
While Ewell was incarcerated, his wife, Carmen, joined Families to Amend California's Three Strikes, a group that seeks to reform the law. Later, she became the organization's state treasurer.