3 Strikes: Homeless Food Bandit's 25 Year Conviction Upheld FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Sun, 18 Jul 1999 22:02:32 -0700 (PDT)


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http://search.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/WAPO/19990717/V000219-071799-idx.html
FWD  Washington Post - Saturday, July 17, 1999

     '3 STRIKES' RULE TRIPS FOOD BANDIT

     By Martha Bellisle
     Associated Press Writer

CORCORAN, Calif. (AP) -- Inside the prison that holds mass murderers Juan
Corona and Charles Manson, a 37-year-old derelict named Gregory Taylor is
serving 25 years to life.

But Taylor didn't kill, or even injure anyone. His crime? Attempting to
break into a church to steal food.

The case recalls ``Les Miserables,'' the classic Victor Hugo novel in which
Jean Valjean is imprisoned for stealing bread, said one of the three judges
who ruled on Taylor's appeal in April.

The other two, however, upheld the conviction.

Taylor's sentence stems from the California three-strikes law intended to
reduce crime by taking habitual criminals off the streets. Two ``serious or
violent'' felonies, followed by one felony of any sort, require a sentence
of 25 years to life.

Taylor had the requisite record. He once snatched a purse containing $10
and a bus pass from a woman on the sidewalk. A year later, he and a buddy,
armed only with macho attitudes, tried to rob a man on the street.

That the second conviction was 14 years ago mattered not at all. Without
the previous convictions, his church break-in would have drawn no more than
three years. Instead, he'll be eligible for parole in 2022, the year he
turns 60. <P>
His remaining chance is the state Supreme Court, which has not yet decided
whether to consider his case.

The three-strikes law was approved by voters in 1994, the year after the
kidnap-murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas by a paroled felon. Critics
maintain that by curtailing the sentencing powers of judges, the law was
bound to lead to unjust punishments.

Taylor grew up in the tough South Central section of Los Angeles, one of
nine boys born between 1949 and 1966 to a nurse who quit work and went on
welfare to care for her children.

His stern, religious mother gathered the boys each Sunday for church,
hoping to keep them on track.

``I didn't want to go,'' Taylor recalls, looking out the visiting room
windows of Corcoran State Prison. ``I'd say, 'I'm sick.' But it never
worked.'' <P>
During the week, the boys heard spontaneous sermons from their mother's two
sisters, both ministers.

His older brother, Dwight, who went on to play outfield for the Kansas City
Royals and other professional baseball teams, ``taught me how to play
sports,'' Taylor says. But the curious teen would slip away to check out
what the other boys were doing.

``At recess, we'd go in this little room and be shooting dice,'' he
recalls. ``Dwight would come looking for me, and I'd hide in the bathroom
stall with my feet up. He'd find me and smell my hands and ask me, 'You
been smoking cigarettes?'''

The strict upbringing couldn't shield Taylor from bad influences. At age
12, he was initiated into the Crips, joining periodic gang battles against
rival Bloods. It was mostly fistfights, he says, ``back in the days before
the drive-by shootings.''

He quit school in the 12th grade, had some run-ins with the law while still
a teen-ager, and spent time in the California Youth Authority. In his 20s,
he did a total of about two years in state prison for the purse-snatching
and the attempted street robbery.

Once out, he met Vivian Fox, a new tenant in his brother's apartment
building. He helped her unload her furniture and soon moved in himself.
Vivian got pregnant, but the relationship didn't last.

``We had an argument and I left,'' Taylor says. ``When I went back, she had
my clothes out on the porch.''

Taylor's daughter, Tamra, is 13 now. He says he hasn't seen her for seven
or eight years, misses her and thinks of her often.

After his family broke up, Taylor began sleeping from time to time in the
laundry room or an alcove at St. Joseph's, a Roman Catholic Church on 12th
Street, a few blocks from the Los Angeles fashion and flower districts.

By day, the area is an open-air bazaar. Mannequins in rayon blouses and
taffeta gowns line the streets. Bolts of fabric stand in rows next to
shelves of baseball caps. The smell of hot dogs flows from food stands
along sidewalks bustling with bargain-hunters.

Taylor found part-time work in the district, doing construction jobs at
flower shops, running machines at a clothing store and, although he had no
driver's license, making deliveries for various companies.

He also volunteered to help church workers feed the homeless and
occasionally worked as a guard at church weddings.

Ten years ago, at the church, Taylor met the Rev. Allan McCoy, a Franciscan
priest. They got together often to talk over baseball scores, family
problems, spirituality. Sometimes McCoy served Taylor sandwiches or drove
him to his mother's house in south Los Angeles. Sometimes he gave Taylor
money to stay at a hotel.

``He was like a father to me,'' Taylor says.

But as the friendship grew, so did Taylor's heroin and cocaine addiction.

When he had the money, he would get a hotel room for a few days and shoot
up. When he couldn't afford a room, he says, he would sometimes crawl into
a tent under a highway to shoot up.

His brothers tried to help. Michael drove him up to a drug rehab center
where Taylor completed a 90-day program and stayed clean for a few years.
But it didn't last.

``I'd do good for a year, nine, 10 months,'' he says. Then it was back to
the streets, he says, ``not doing crimes, doing drugs.''

He was stuck in a cycle, he says, his sad downward-angled eyes casting
about the visiting room. ``I'd do a little and I'd want more. That's a bad
feeling, when you come down off that stuff. I'd ask myself, 'Why? Why?'
It's crazy.''

Sometimes, Taylor would wander over to the church and tell McCoy, ``I'm
tired, burned out.'' The priest would give him a ride back to his mother's
house, where he would rest, dry out.

Sometimes the police picked him up for drug use, and in 1992 he was
convicted of cocaine possession. Put on parole, he violated its terms by
not checking in with his officer, he says, because he knew he would fail
the drug test.

About 4 a.m., July 11, 1997, two guards paused in the shadows and watched a
tall, slender man in dirty clothes and worn-out tennis shoes bend over the
bottom of the back door to St. Joseph's. He was working a piece of 4-by-4
into a crack in the door.

The door led to a kitchen where industrial-size refrigerators chill tubs of
cottage cheese, and shelves of cups and plates line a wall above a row of
deep sinks.

The guards, as they later told it, watched for a couple of minutes as the
man pried at the door. Then they yelled, ``Stop!'' Gregory Taylor froze,
then pulled the board from the door, leaned it against the wall and,
following instructions, put his hands behind his head.

The arresting police officer later testified that Taylor said he ``was
trying to go in the kitchen to get something to eat.''

Taylor continues to deny the whole thing. ``I would never go into that
place to steal,'' he says, adding that the break-in was concocted by one of
the guards who had argued with him over sleeping in the church alcove.

At trial, Taylor's lawyer, Graciela Martinez, argued that even if Taylor
had tried to break into the church, he was guilty of no more than
trespassing. The kitchen was where church workers fed the homeless,
Martinez said, and it wasn't a break-in if Taylor believed he had
permission to enter to get food.

But a jury convicted him, a judge handed down the law-mandated sentence,
and the appeals court agreed.

``I was devastated,'' Ms. Martinez says. ``This was the most painful case
I've ever handled because it was so unjust. He did not have a violent
nature. He was just poor and hungry. Now he has 25 to life.''

``He was a gentleman throughout the trial,'' she recalls. ``Even at the
end, when the sentence was imposed. He thanked the judge, then turned, he
was crying by this point, and he thanked Father McCoy. Then he thanked me.''

Alex Ricciardulli, Los Angeles County deputy public defender, says Taylor
is not the kind of defendant lawmakers had in mind when they wrote the
three-strikes law.

``The law,'' he says, ``was designed for repeat felons, not repeat
nuisances. The punishment doesn't fit the crime.''

Prosecutor Dale Cutler sees it differently.

Taylor ``failed at both probation and parole and did more than that,'' he
said. ``What he violated was the trust of a man (McCoy) who showed him
nothing but kindness over a nine-year period.''

Today, Taylor lives among some of the country's most violent offenders. He
works out every other day and is eager to get reassigned to a new prison
job.

He quit his last one because ``they wanted me to kill gophers,'' he says.
``I can't do that. That's nature.''

McCoy moves ghostlike about the church grounds in his long, brown
Franciscan robe cinched at the waist with a gold cord. His normally gentle
eyes catch fire as he speaks of the sentence he considers unjust, of the
friend he knows ``as a peaceful man, a man who helped down at the center
with the feeding of the street people.''

``What about the concept of human dignity?'' he demands, lightly pounding
the table with his fist.

McCoy and Taylor remain friends. They exchange letters.

Taylor draws happy faces on his.

END FORWARD

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