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'Pizza thief' walks the line

COLUMN ONE

He quietly got a new chance after the three-strikes law sent him to prison for 25 to life. Now, any mistake could send him back.

February 10, 2010|Jack Leonard

If he ever returns to prison, Jerry Dewayne Williams knows he'll probably never get out.

To stay clear of trouble, he has left behind the Compton neighborhood where police knew him and cut ties with friends from wilder days. Once a hard partyer, the 43-year-old says he prefers the company of a mystery novel or a "Law and Order" episode on television.

Williams is one of more than 14,000 felons who, under California's three-strikes law, face a possible life sentence if they commit another felony. But few, if any, grasp the reality of that threat better than Williams.

Fifteen years ago, the gangly laborer made worldwide headlines when he was convicted of snatching a slice of pizza from a group of children near the Redondo Beach Pier. A judge, citing California's newly adopted three-strikes law, sentenced him to 25 years to life.

Williams -- dubbed the "pizza thief" -- became an iconic symbol in the political and ideological battle over California's push to get tough on crime. But as the public furor over his case subsided, Williams persuaded a judge to reduce his prison term, and he was quietly released after a little more than five years behind bars.

A decade later, Williams finds himself serving a different kind of life sentence.

"I walk on eggshells," he said. "Any little thing that I do, I could be back for the rest of my life."

Controversial life sentences under the three-strikes law are hardly novel. Those sentenced under the law include a thief caught shoplifting a bottle of vitamins and a drug addict who swiped nine videotapes to sell for heroin.

But few cases have polarized opinion as much as Williams' theft of an extra-large slice of pepperoni pizza. The case continues to divide today, resurfacing whenever opponents of the law launch another reform attempt.

Williams' story since his release offers fuel to both backers and opponents of three strikes.

For opponents, Williams' success in staying out of prison repudiates one of the central ideas behind the law: That three-strikes offenders are beyond redemption and should be locked up for life.

For supporters of the law, Williams' efforts to avoid trouble illustrate how three strikes is working as a powerful deterrent.

Now living in Moreno Valley, Williams remains bitter about the case that brought him notoriety. But he acknowledges his role in the ongoing debate over the sentencing law.

"If I go back to jail, it proves three strikes is right -- that this is where I belong," Williams said. "So I have to stay out."

Staying out hasn't always been simple.

Growing up, Williams recalls that his mother and stepfather were loving but strict. But by 18, he was already familiar to police.

In 1985, he was arrested twice on suspicion of car theft and was convicted of receiving stolen property. Over the next several years, Williams racked up convictions for drug possession, vehicle theft and robbery, serving time in jail and on probation. He was eventually sentenced to two years in prison for attempted robbery and for violating probation.

After his release in April 1993, Williams appeared to turn his life around. He passed his drug tests and found work through a temporary employment agency. Impressed, a parole officer ended Williams' parole early in May 1994.

Two months later, on July 30, Williams headed to a bar near the Redondo Beach Pier with a group of friends.

Nearby, Mary Larson was looking for a place to eat for her sisters and her children. The adults wanted to eat at one of the fish restaurants near the pier. The four children -- ages 7 to 15 -- wanted pizza.

The parents found a pizza stand and ordered, leaving the children at an outdoor table with the eldest in charge. When the adults found a fish restaurant, Larson's husband, Keith, went to check on the children. He returned with all four.

"Some guys stole our pizza," the Larsons' 15-year-old son blurted out.

Williams was arrested at a nearby arcade.

The 27-year-old Williams had stumbled into a political storm raging over how to deal with recidivists.

Public anxiety over crime had reached new heights with the 1993 killing of Polly Klaas, a 12-year-old taken at knifepoint from the bedroom of her Petaluma, Calif., home by a twice-convicted kidnapper.

In the wake of Klaas' murder, a statewide campaign was mounted to adopt a "Three Strikes and You're Out" law. The proposal, which went on to win overwhelming voter approval, targeted offenders with at least two serious or violent previous crimes, such as rape or robbery. Any new felony conviction triggered a prison sentence of at least 25 years to life.

As the campaign gathered momentum, the state Legislature passed a nearly identical measure in March 1994, four months before Williams' arrest.

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