SAN FRANCISCO – Nearly 15 years after sentencing, an inmate is getting an unexpected chance at freedom — and the judge a shot at redemption.
Students at Stanford Law School's novel Three Strikes Project, which has successfully overturned 14 life prison terms handed down for non-violent crimes under California's unforgiving sentencing law, are joined by an unusual coalition in their latest bid. The county judge and prosecutor who sent Shane Taylor behind bars for 25-years-to-life in 1996 now want to help set him free.
His public defender at trial is also supporting Taylor's plea for a reduced sentence by conceding he failed to mount an adequate defense.
Taylor's offenses: two burglary convictions when he was 19, and a third conviction for possessing about $10 worth of methamphetamine.
Under California's three-strikes law, any third felony can earn a repeat offender a minimum sentence of 25 years in prison. It's a law 26 states and the federal government have some variation of, but none is more punitive than California's.
In response to the law, renowned defense attorney Michael Romano co-founded the Three Strikes clinic at Stanford in 2006. He said he believes that too often the law fails to distinguish the violent career criminal from bumbling, drug addicted defendants who are sent away for at least 25 years for a nonviolent felony conviction.
Unlike the so-called "innocence projects" that set out to free the wrongly convicted, Romano says the Stanford clinic represents a different breed of prisoners: "All of our clients are guilty."
On Nov. 15, the Stanford clinic asked the California Court of Appeal in Fresno to toss out Taylor's sentence.
Taylor was drinking beer, listening to music with two friends at a vista point above a Tulare County lake in the wee hours when the police rolled up and found about $10 worth of methamphetamine in his wallet. That would become strike three.
The judge, Howard Broadman, became haunted by memories of the case, believing he had rendered a bad decision in invoking the harsh law. He regretted that in calculating the prison sentence he hadn't ignored one or both of Taylor's previous felony convictions: Attempted burglary and burglary that netted a homeless and methamphetamine-addicted Taylor a pizza paid for with a forged check.
Broadman called the law school last year after reading about the Three Strikes Project's remarkable success in freeing convicts like Taylor who "struck out" and received identical sentences for nonviolent crimes.
Now Taylor is represented by an organization that in the last four years has won 14 early releases for third-strike felons, including a man whose third strike was breaking into a church in search of food.
Rather than argue innocence, the Stanford crew contends its clients' prison sentences are illegally harsh and wrongly calculated.
"They have the innocence projects," said third-year law student Susannah Karlsson, who is helping present Taylor. "We have the guilty project."
The clinic is the only such organization dedicated to representing convicts sentenced under California's three-strikes law, which voters overwhelmingly adopted in 1994.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says 8,570 third strikers were in prison as of December 2009. Slightly less than half were sentenced for "crimes against property," drugs and other offenses, including 55 drunken driving convictions.
Mike Reynolds, who lost his teen daughter to murder and became a driving force behind three strikes, calls the Stanford clinic naive and misguided. Reynolds said the law is working as it should because the nature of the third felony doesn't matter — the law was designed to lock up the career criminal. Also, he said the prior two convictions must be for serious or violent crimes.
"They are playing Russian roulette," said Reynolds, whose teen daughter's killer received a nine-year prison sentence. "They are opening the prison door for career criminals."
Taylor's legal counsel has told the Court of Appeal their client has an unblemished prison disciplinary record and is in close contact with his wife and teen daughter. They said Taylor plans to move to Bakersfield, if freed, to be near family and seek a job.
They point out that Taylor made all of his court appearances while free on $10,000 bail even though he was facing such a harsh sentence. Broadman asked Taylor at his sentencing why he didn't flee.
"I came back because I had faith in the system," Taylor told the judge. "I'm not a person that's gonna run from the problem that I created."
The prosecutor is joining Boardman, who is now a mediator in Visalia, in supporting a reduced prison sentence.
The appeal contends that Taylor's public defender at trial failed to tell Broadman about Taylor's horrific upbringing that included sexual abuse, a prostitute mother and early drug use. And Broadman says that, had he known of Taylor's past, he would have doled out a more lenient sentence.
Taylor's trial lawyer has filed a declaration saying he failed to properly represent his client, especially at sentencing when he filed legal papers mistakenly labeling Taylor's last offense as a burglary rather than drug possession.
Taylor's supporters are optimistic he will win his case — even though a Tulare County Superior Court judge earlier this year refused to reopen it.
"I made a lot of mistakes," said Broadman, who retired in 1999 after a colorful career on the bench that included a censure and ordering a convicted thief to wear a T-shirt announcing he was on probation. "But the Taylor case stuck with me."
(This version CORRECTS law student's name to Susannah Karlsson, instead of Sussanah, in 14th paragraph.)