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Jurors deserve thanks for opposing unjust law

Joe Wilcox and Debbie Holland did all people of conscience a favor when they stood before Judge

Joe Flaherty of Placer County Court in Auburn, Calif., and announced they were unable to sentence a defendant to a lifetime behind bars for stealing a $300 bicycle.

Stephen Vincent Bell, 35, faced the automatic sentence under California’s three-strikes law because he had previously been convicted of two Nevada burglaries, one at the age of 19 and the other in 1989, when he was 25.

“Your honor,” said Wilcox on Feb. 2, “I have a moral objection to being a part of a process that would impose a life sentence on someone for stealing a $300 bike.”

“Morally, I can’t do it either,” said Holland, who teaches computer skills to elementary school students. She said she voted for the three-strikes law in California, believing it was aimed at violent offenders. The law “was not made for putting a bike thief in prison,” she said.

Wilcox, a retiree who is a trained lay minister and active in his Catholic parish, St. Joseph’s in Auburn, said when it became apparent during jury proceedings that the panel would have to rule on the three-strikes element of the case, he knew he would not be able to participate.

When the time came for the jury to certify the convictions from Nevada, he said that the case was “a slam dunk” under the law. Everything was in order. The prior convictions were for house burglaries, he said. There was no mention in the court papers, he said, of arms being used or of any violence in the commission of the earlier crimes. And the bicycle theft was not a violent crime. Bell stole the bike from a garage last year.

“There was no proportionality to it,” said Wilcox. He told the other jury members and the judge that “I couldn’t live with my conscience if I took part in a process that put a man in jail for life for stealing a $300 bicycle.”

The stand by Holland and Wilcox is the latest illustration of the lunacy of the three-strikes approach to sentencing, especially as it exists in California.

It is the visible part of the penal system iceberg in America that keeps threatening to sink any remaining vestiges of societal common sense when it comes to crime and punishment.

By establishing absolute punishments with no room for the discretion of a judge or mercy and compassion that might derive from the circumstances of a case and an individual’s life, we have created a rule of law more fitting for robots than for humans.

Societies have a right to establish systems of law enforcement for the protection of the common good. People have a right to feel safe, and it is a legitimate function of government to guarantee safety.

But creating a system that has lost any sense of balance creates its own kind of terror. At the same time, it feeds the raw material of humans to a sinister new growth industry -- prisons.

As chilling as the law itself is the fact that the rest of the jury in Placer County found little trouble upholding the law -- and the two alternates quickly replaced Wilcox and Holland and in a short time approved the documents from Nevada. Bell will face sentencing on April 12, as things stand, an automatic term of life in prison. Justice has little to do with that kind of sentence.

National Catholic Reporter, February 18, 2000