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The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the release of a Three Strikes defendant from prison, saying the man’s nonviolent conviction is one of those “exceedingly rare” situations where a harsh sentence does not fit the crime. In a 55-page opinion, a divided three-judge panel harshly criticized California courts — including the state Supreme Court — and state law enforcement officials for their handling of defendant Isaac Ramirez, who was sent to prison in 1996 for stealing a $199 videocassette recorder. “Ramirez’s sentence of 25 years to life in prison is grossly disproportionate to the offenses he committed. The California court of appeal’s decision to the contrary is an objectively unreasonable application of clearly established federal law because it erroneously characterizes and otherwise fails to consider the unique, objective factual circumstances of Ramirez’s case,” wrote Judge Kim Wardlaw. Senior Judge John Noonan Jr. concurred. Judge Andrew Kleinfeld dissented, saying the panel should have deferred to state court rulings. “The majority concludes, understandably, that Ramirez’s sentence is a violation of the Eighth Amendment,” Kleinfeld wrote. “The problem is that such an analysis is just the type of subtle parsing that necessarily conflicts with the deference we owe to state judgments about which punishment is appropriate.” The appellate panel relied in part on last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision Lockyer v. Andrade, 539 U.S. 63, which upheld the state’s Three Strikes law. The panel said even that conservative opinion, which reinstated a lengthy sentence for the theft of videotapes, left room for the argument that there are still some Three Strikes convictions that violate the Eight Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Ramirez was convicted of theft after stealing the VCR from a Sears department store. When his state appeals were denied, Ramirez took his case federal pro se, using the state prison library to help him prepare his own writ. He was released after 5 1/2 years in prison by U.S. District Judge J. Spencer Letts, who had accepted the findings of a federal magistrate. Monday’s opinion upholds Letts’ decision, which was appealed by the office of Attorney General Bill Lockyer. Ramirez, who has a history of using drugs and stealing, also argued his own case in front of the 9th Circuit. He said he wasn’t nervous when he appeared in front of the circuit panel July 18 because he received all the legal advice he needed after converting to Christianity while in prison. “I trusted in the Lord that he would complete this,” Ramirez said. “He was the greatest lawyer of all.” Lockyer’s office said it was reviewing the decision and would not comment on whether it plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The opinion also criticizes the AG for not trying to reach a settlement with Ramirez — which the court asked Lockyer to do — instead of litigating at the 9th Circuit. “Despite his status as the chief elected law enforcement officer of the state and head of California’s Department of Justice … and the Three Strikes Law itself, which requires state officials to exercise discretion in its application … the attorney general represented that he was without authority to dismiss or otherwise resolve this federal appeal,” Wardlaw wrote. The opinion traces the history of the case that netted Ramirez his 25-years-to-life sentence, as well as the recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding California’s Three Strikes law, among the harshest sentencing laws in the country. Ramirez had pleaded guilty to two felony counts of second-degree robbery in 1991. But the offenses amounted to little more than shoplifting, Wardlaw wrote, and Ramirez was sentenced to only one year in county jail. When Ramirez stole the VCR five years later, prosecutors charged him with petty theft with a prior felony — a “wobbler” that can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. They also charged the two robberies as strike priors. The opinion is unusual in that it is openly critical of another judge, San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Margaret Powers, who is quoted in Wardlaw’s ruling. Because Ramirez used security tape to package up the VCR box and because he already had a buyer for the property, Powers said Ramirez had clearly become a “professional thief,” even though five years had passed between the theft and the earlier robbery counts. “We recognize that California’s Legislature has primacy and great latitude in determining appropriate punishment, and that California’s Three Strikes law may serve the state’s legitimate goals of … deterring recidivist crime in California,” Wardlaw wrote. “But we find these state interests less compelling in this particular case.” “Indeed, it is doubtful that California’s Three Strikes law … was ever intended to apply to a nonviolent, three-time shoplifter such as Ramirez.” Upon release, Ramirez went to work for his church, New Hope Family Worship Center in Corona, doing maintenance and running the church’s prison ministry. He said he now plans to file a writ in federal court to remove a monitoring device from his ankle. Ramirez said he hoped his story encourages people to vote for a new initiative that would change Three Strikes so that only violent offenses would count as strikes. Proponents have turned in about 700,000 signatures, which is nearly twice the number needed to qualify for the November ballot. The case is Ramirez v. Castro, 04 C.D.O.S. 3350.

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