25-to-life for food burglary: 3-Strikes law = justice for all?

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Mon, 26 Apr 1999 21:25:27 -0700 (PDT)

HOMELESS PEOPLE'S VIEWS, News, Alerts, Actions & Research
4,000+ ONLINE posts by or via homeless & ex-homeless people
HOMELESS PEOPLE'S NETWORK http://aspin.asu.edu/hpn

Do USA courts practice "equal justice for all", homeless people included?

For a related case under California's "Three Strikes" law, see article below:

FWD  Associated Press - Monday, April 26, 1999 [California, USA]


LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A state appeals court has upheld the 25-year-to-life
sentence of a homeless ex-con who tried to pry open the kitchen door of a
church, where he'd been fed in the past, and steal some food.

A dissenting justice on the 2nd District Court of Appeal likened Gregory
Taylor's case to Les Miserables. But a spokesman for state Attorney General
Bill Lockyer said the case was within the spirit of California's
three-strikes law.

Taylor, now 37, was spotted by security guards in July 1997 using a board
to try to open a screen over the kitchen door of St. Joseph's Church in Los
Angeles between 4 and 4:30 a.m. The door was slightly damaged. Taylor told
a policeman he knew a priest at the church and was trying to enter the
kitchen to get something to eat.

In addition to food, the church had such valuable items as chalices and
alms boxes, the court said.

At the trial, a pastor, Father Allan McCoy, said he had known Taylor for
about nine years and would often find Taylor waiting for him outside the
church when he left for work around 5:40 a.m. Taylor usually asked for a
ride and sometimes for food, and McCoy would usually accommodate him, he
said. Taylor had also been allowed to sleep in a church building in the
past, but not for the previous six to 12 months, the court said.

Taylor was convicted of burglary for entering the kitchen to steal. He had
two previous robbery convictions, in the 1980s, and a 1988 parole
violation, said Deputy Attorney General Chung Mar.

He was sentenced under the three-strikes law, which requires a term of 25
years to life for any felony committed by a defendant with two previous
serious or violent felony convictions.

Superior Court Judge James Dunn declined to use his authority to disregard
one or both of Taylor's past convictions, which would have lessened his
sentence. He said the jury must have concluded Taylor meant to steal the
church's valuable possessions.

The dissenting justice, Earl Johnson, disagreed, noting that McCoy opposed
a three-strike sentence for Taylor, and several jurors offered to testify
for a lighter sentence.

The legal issue in the appeal was Dunn's refusal to instruct the jury that
the crime would be only trespassing, and not burglary, if Taylor believed
he had the right or permission to take food from the church. In some past
cases, a defendant charged with theft has been allowed to claim a
good-faith, though mistaken, belief in a right to the property.

But the appeals court, in a 2-1 ruling Friday, agreed with Dunn that Taylor
could not offer such a claim since the food was inside a locked church.

Taylor ``may have honestly believed that the priests had consented to his
taking their food by their prior acts of charity,'' said the opinion by
Justice Fred Woods. ``But such a good-faith belief does not equate to an
honest and good-faith belief that he had consent to forcibly enter the
church at night to get the food and damage the door in the process.''

Presiding Justice Mildred Lillie agreed, but Johnson dissented, invoking
Jean Valjean, the hero of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, who spent 19 years
in a penal colony after stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family.

``A hungry, homeless man is sent away for 25 years to life for trying to
break into a church so he could eat some food he thought the church would
be glad for him to have'' -- a defense the jury wasn't allowed to consider,
Johnson said

He said the jury, if properly instructed, ``could reasonably find Taylor
lacked an intent to steal but instead held a mistaken belief he was merely
claiming food the church had consented he could have.''

Even if Taylor was properly convicted, Johnson said, his past convictions
were ``ordinary and nonviolent'' and he should not have been given a
third-strike sentence.

Mar, the state's lawyer, disagreed that Taylor's previous convictions were
nonviolent, noting that robbery is the forcible taking of property.

Lockyer's spokesman, Nathan Barankin, said Monday the attorney general
believed the sentence was proper because the three-strikes law has
safeguards -- the authority of both the trial judge and the prosecutor to
reduce the sentence below the maximum.

``The spirit of three strikes is one that gives the court and our district
attorneys the discretion to determine who can be sentenced under three

Taylor's appellate lawyer, Howard J. Specter, did not return telephone
calls seeking comment.


**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is
distributed without charge or profit to those who have expressed a prior
interest in receiving this type of information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only.**

HOMELESS PEOPLE'S NETWORK <http://aspin.asu.edu/hpn>
4,000+ POSTS by or via homeless & ex-homeless people
Nothing About Us Without Us - Democratize Public Policy