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Justice and friendship prevail

When he reversed a three-strikes conviction, Judge Spencer Letts gave Michael Banyard a new life and himself a new mission.

February 28, 2010|By Kurt Streeter

By 2002, he was down to one last appeal -- to the U.S. District Court, where his case went to Letts. The judge was approaching 70 then, working less and reflecting on his life. He thought often of his father -- a steady, stealthy drinker late in life -- and of a cousin who became a fervent member of Alcoholics Anonymous. He had empathy for their struggle. He had his own dark bouts with depression and sometimes talked openly about them in court. He understood how it felt to battle despair.

It was against this backdrop that he took Banyard's case.

"I couldn't put my finger on it but it just rubbed me the wrong way," he said. "Twenty-five years, no guarantee of ever leaving, for that amount of cocaine? Something was wrong. Very wrong."

He researched every aspect of the case, work that took 2 1/2 years. Banyard's appeals were well crafted but needed sharpening. The judge took the unusual step of hiring lawyers to help him.

On Oct. 4, 2004, Letts issued a 32-page ruling. Banyard was in his cell at the San Luis Obispo Men's Colony when he received the manila envelope. As he opened it, his hands began to tremble. He was so nervous, his cellmate had to read the ruling to him.

Letts wrote that the $6 robbery was "outside the heartland of serious felonies that normally constitute . . . strikes under the Three Strikes Law."

He said Banyard's pre-appeal lawyers had let their client down and dismissed as irrelevant Banyard's history of petty crimes and arrests for which he was never prosecuted. He said second-degree murderers, rapists and those guilty of voluntary manslaughter received lighter sentences than Banyard had.

Most important, he ruled that in Banyard's second strike, there had been a serious mistake: The state court recorded it as an assault with a gun, but Banyard had actually pleaded no contest to simple assault. "That," Letts wrote, "did not constitute a felony for purposes of the Three Strikes Law."

"Banyard's sentence," the judge wrote, "is grossly disproportionate to his offense and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the 8th Amendment."

Michael Banyard was freed.

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

Next: Friendship grows.

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