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Home invasion murder case called a 'prosecutor's nightmare'

Official says the D.A.'s office could have done a better job on three-strikes bail but says the policy won't be reviewed.

December 04, 2010|By Jack Leonard and Richard Winton, Times Staff Writers

A top Los Angeles County district attorney's official said prosecutors could have done a better job determining the bail of a suspected thief who, while out of custody, allegedly killed four people in a series of home invasion robberies.

Asst. Dist. Atty. Jacquelyn Lacey described the case as a "prosecutor's nightmare" and said her office planned to encourage prosecutors to follow the court's recommended bail for defendants unless there is a good reason to allow them to stay free. Lacey said the office would also send a notice to city police departments asking them to review suspects' criminal records before setting bail.

Her comments came after The Times reported on the case of John Wesley Ewell, who had two prior convictions for robbery when he was arrested and charged three times this year with theft. Ewell's recommended bail would have been more than $100,000. But he was allowed to remain free on $20,000 bail in each of the three theft cases.

"We feel terrible every time someone who was before the court system takes a life," Lacey said in an interview Thursday. "It cuts us to our core because that's what we do. We are involved in holding people accountable for their crimes."

Interactive map: Learn more about the four murder victims

After each of his three arrests this year, Ewell was released on bail from city jails. Prosecutors then filed criminal charges and requested that the court set a higher bail. But in at least two of the cases, the assigned deputy district attorney said during court hearings that he had no objection to Ewell's remaining out of custody.

Lacey called the deputy district attorneys who handled Ewell's theft cases "career prosecutors who are committed to the cause and are committed to doing a good job." She said the prosecutors were influenced by the fact that Ewell was attending court hearings regularly while out on bail and did not appear to be a flight risk.

Ewell is charged with murdering four people in a series of home invasion robberies that terrorized the South Bay this fall. He pleaded not guilty earlier this week.

Some relatives of the victims have questioned how Ewell, 53, was allowed to remain free.

In September, he pleaded no contest in one of his theft cases in return for a 32-month prison sentence. A judge agreed to postpone sentencing, citing medical issues that Ewell needed to take care of.

Ten days later, the killings began.

Ewell was an advocate for reforming the state's controversial three-strikes law. Under the 1994 law, his robbery convictions from the 1980s made him eligible for a 25-years-to-life prison sentence if he was convicted of another felony, no matter how minor.

But the Los Angeles County district attorney's office decided on four occasions — once in the mid-1990s and three times this year — against seeking the maximum sentence when Ewell was charged with new crimes.

Most prosecutors across the state use discretion in deciding when to seek potential life prison terms for three-strikers. 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.

Lacey said her office was not reviewing the policy. She noted that Ewell's violent crimes were more than two decades old and said it was impossible to predict from his record that he would turn violent.

"The three-strikes tool is a very important tool, but it's got to be used carefully," Lacey said. "We feel terrible for the victims, but we believe that … this is on Mr. Ewell, and we will hold him accountable."

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