Homeless man's "life for food theft" case will get CA court

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Sat, 24 Jul 1999 20:38:36 -0700 (PDT)

People vs. Taylor, S079437

FWD  Associated Press - Thursday, July 22, 1999


     Bob Egelko, Associated Press Writer

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- The state Supreme Court will review the case of a
homeless man sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for trying to break
into a church to steal food.

The sentence has become a rallying cry for critics of California's three
strikes law.

But the court won't consider whether Gregory Taylor's punishment was
excessive for his crime -- an issue not even raised in his appeal, because
it has been uniformly rejected in other cases.

The only dispute is whether Taylor was validly convicted. That may depend
on the court's ruling in another case that raises the issue of whether
someone accused of theft can argue that he believed he owned the property
or had the right to take it.

That case has been under review since last September and has not yet been
scheduled for a hearing. The justices put Taylor's case on hold until they
decide the earlier case.

The three-strikes law, passed in 1994, requires a sentence of 25 years to
life for a criminal with two violent or serious felony convictions who
commits any new felony. Early studies have shown that a majority of
three-strikers are sentenced for nonviolent crimes.

Taylor, now 37, was arrested in July 1997 after being caught trying to pry
open a screen above the kitchen door of a Los Angeles church. He said he
was trying to get something to eat. A priest testified Taylor had often
been given food at the church and had sometimes been allowed to sleep there.

He was convicted of burglary, for using a board to reach inside the church
in an attempt to commit theft. A prosecutor said Taylor may have been
trying to steal chalices or alms boxes.

It was his third strike because of two robbery convictions in the 1980s,
one for a $10 purse-snatching. Superior Court Judge James Dunn refused to
disregard one or both of Taylor's past convictions, which would have
lessened his sentence.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal upheld his conviction in April. The 2-1
ruling agreed with 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.

Although Taylor may have believed that the priests had consented to his
taking their food, he could not have held a good-faith belief that he had
the right to break into the church, said the opinion by Justice Fred Woods.

Dissenting Justice Earl Johnson likened Taylor to Jean Valjean, the hero of
Victor Hugo's novel 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,'' Johnson wrote. He said the jury, if properly
instructed, could have found that Taylor lacked an intent to steal.

The case is People vs. Taylor, S079437.


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