‘Three strikes’ decision draws mixed opinions


‘Three strikes’ decision draws mixed opinions
Leandro Andrade’s family, prosecutors react to U.S. Supreme Court’s announcement that it will hear Pomona man’s appeal of controversial state law.
By Gene Maddaus / gene.maddaus@latimes.com

April 2 2002

Six years later, Mirlo Aranda still can’t fathom what happened to her brother, Leandro Andrade.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “Why did they give him 50 to life for petty theft, and people that rape and kill are out in a couple years?”

It’s a question the U.S. Supreme Court will have to answer, after deciding Monday to hear Andrade’s appeal of California’s tough “three strikes” law, which sent the Pomona man to prison for life for stealing nine videotapes from a pair of Kmarts in Ontario and Montclair in late 1995. Andrade’s family was stunned when West Valley Superior Court Judge Joan Borba sentenced him to two consecutive 25-years-to-life terms for two counts of petty theft in 1996. Ordinarily, the charge is a misdemeanor, but with Andrade’s criminal record — which included five burglaries, a federal drug charge, and another petty theft — they were felonies, and third strikes.

Andrade’s path to the Supreme Court began modestly, in the state prison in Lancaster, where there is little to do but watch TV, lift weights and file appeals. Last November, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco made the case into a landmark decision, as it overturned Andrade’s sentence, calling it “grossly disproportionate” to his crime, and delivered the most significant blow yet to “three strikes.”

California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer appealed immediately to the U.S. Supreme Court, which accepted the case on Monday.

Attorneys in the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office, which handled the initial prosecution, hope and expect that the Supreme Court will uphold Andrade’s sentence, Deputy Dist. Atty. Grover Merritt said.

“The law is on the books for a reason,” Merritt said. “California voters are tired of the revolving-door criminal, and Leandro Andrade, for all the weeping the 9th Circuit did over him, is a prime example of that.”

Erwin Chemerinsky, a USC law professor who was appointed to represent Andrade, said he had mixed feelings about the Supreme Court taking the case.

Because the 9th Circuit court ruled in his favor, Chemerinsky argued against further review by the Supreme Court.

But if he wins in Washington, the ruling will have ramifications beyond California. Forty states have laws that call for harsher penalties for recidivists, though only in Louisiana could Andrade have faced a comparable sentence.

Chemerinsky said he was confident of his chances before the Supreme Court.

“Andrade got sentenced to 50 to life for stealing $153 worth of videotapes,” he said. “If anything seems grossly disproportionate, this is it.”

Chemerinsky said he expected to have oral arguments on the case in November, with a ruling from the court by June 2003.

Andrade’s 22-year-old daughter, Chanel Andrade, said she forgives her father for his past behavior, but can see both sides of the three-strikes debate.

“I still love my dad,” she said. “I do hope for his own sake he can get his life together.”

If he gets out, she said she’s not sure she would want to have a relationship with him.

Leandro Andrade was in prison most of Chanel’s life, and she had little contact with him, she said. In 1995 she ran away from her mother to live with him, but found that he was using drugs.

“I moved in there not knowing what I was getting myself into,” she said. “My mom was very supportive of me as far as trying to get over the hurt and the pain of it all.”

Chanel said she had a premonition something bad was about to happen one day in 1995, and later that day got a call informing her that her father had been arrested.

“I was very disappointed,” she said. “It was really hard for me to deal and function. … I was at the bottom of my life.”

Chanel said she works 40 hours a week and takes classes at night. If she can build a stable life, she wonders why her father never could.

“When he’s out, you don’t hear from him. When he’s in prison, he likes to write you. … I’m really tired of playing the game,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Can you grow up now? Can you have a normal life? Is that possible?’ ”

While Chanel said the 50-years-to-life sentence was “pretty harsh,” she said she felt, “If you’re going to treat society like that, society is going to treat you like that.”

In a telephone interview from state prison in Tehachapi last November, Andrade said he stole the videotapes because he was a heroin addict and wanted to go to jail to get clean, “before I did something dangerous or stupid.”

“I’m a heroin addict,” he said. “I’m not proud of that, but it’s a fact. I was really looking for a clean-up. … It’s hard to stop.”

He said he had cleaned up while in prison.

His closest relative was another sister, Mary Andrade, who kept in touch with him and kept track of his court cases.

“Lee’s a really good guy. He needs a chance,” she said in November. She was suffering from diabetes and had just had part of her leg amputated. “I’d love to have him out here with me.”

In a November letter to Inland Valley Times, Andrade wrote that the 9th Circuit court’s ruling “has given me hope that I will be able to one day hold her once again in her hour of need.”

Mary Andrade died last month.

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