Today’s big story in the LA Times is on multiple murder suspect John Wesley Ewell, and the fact that prosecutors repeatedly missed the chance to put him away for life for relatively petty crimes under California’s three strikes law. According to the story, the closest Ewell–an advocate against three strikes who once went on the “Montel Williams Show” to protest against it–ever came to violence was helping to rob a man in an alley in the 80′s, while reportedly telling him “Don’t move if you don’t want to be hurt.” The three offenses prosecutors could have used to put Ewell away for life involved defrauding Home Depot. He also deposited a stolen check for $28,000. Ewell was sentenced to 7 years in jail for the check–way more than any banker in the recent collapse of the American economy–and 32 months for the first of the Home Depot crimes. Prosecutors could have sought life in jail for those crimes under three strikes. Instead he got nearly 10 years in jail–which the Times refers to as “lenient.”
Far from embodying the severity of the justice system, Ewell benefited from its lenience over the last 16 years, according to a Times review of court records and interviews.
Ewell has a lengthy criminal history that includes two robbery convictions from the 1980s. Nevertheless, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office decided on four occasions against seeking to use the full weight of the three-strikes law when he was charged with new crimes ….
Ewell’s case is likely to fuel more debate about the practice of many California prosecutors to seek less than the maximum sentence for some three-strikers.
The piece was clearly engineered and written as to reignite debate over “three strikes”–which had largely and rightfully been dead for quite some time. Not that mention of three strikes isn’t justified in a story about Ewell. It’s an interesting part of his case. But instead of three strikes, this piece could just have easily focuses on county mental health services for convicts, as Ewell seemed clearly off from the descriptions of him in this story. But now three strikes is issue of the day, as the Times’ angle has been picked up by most major papers in the state.
It’s awful that Ewell chose the few days he had between jail to go absolutely insane and start strangling people. But the state can’t just start locking up every petty criminal for life because of the off chance one of them might hurt someone. People are up in arms over the TSA body scanners. Violations of our civil liberties aren’t worth the assurance of absolute, maximum security at airports. Well, guess what, this is an extension of the same issue.
We’ll see if the reactionary arm of the right-wing cable and radio news network pick up on the Times’ story. They most likely will–how could this thing not be on Hannity tonight? If they do, it’s only a matter of time before for some upstart political puke goes the law-and-order route in the next election and we wind up with half the state in jail for the rest of their lives on relatively petty crimes.