Months after voters approved Proposition 36 last November, revising California's "three-strikes" sentencing law, I saw my client for the first time, in a dusty prison southwest of Fresno. He was quiet and smart with a gentle smile, exactly the opposite of what I expected a man who faced a lifetime behind bars to look like. "Ray" had served 14 years in prison for a petty theft, his third strike after multiple prior felony convictions, which drew him a mandatory life sentence under the 1994 law.
The 2012 revision gave inmates sentenced under the law to 25-years-to-life terms for nonviolent offenses the opportunity to be resentenced to a nonlife term.
As the court-appointed defender, our office had been assigned several three-strikes resentencing cases; Ray's was the first case to be heard. We spoke about how he'd reacted eight years before when the public voted against revising the law. The morning the reforms were defeated, he'd had a painful phone conversation with his young children in which they spoke about football, rather than the obvious fact that he wouldn't be coming home.
In April as I stood next to Ray in court, his family was present, waiting to hear if the judge would release him. The district attorney focused his arguments on the crimes he'd committed 35 years ago - including several robberies. He stressed Ray's violations while in custody: failing to button his shirt, failing to turn in his breakfast tray, covering the windows of his cell, etc. The DA lamented Ray's failure to take advantage of institutional rehabilitation.
Speaking for my client, I focused on his accomplishments while in custody: earning a GED, helping to establish a "lifer" support group to mitigate institutionalization, a long "career" as a law clerk and clerk for prison clergy workers, numerous certificates, outstanding reviews from supervisors and counselors, and not one incident of violence. His wife had stood by him during the entire incarceration, his two children were attending college, and he, according to an article he wrote and published, strived to be the "best Dad he could be from where he was."
Ray listened quietly, but I could tell he wanted to speak. He told me he'd spent the past 14 years planning what he'd say in this moment. Although I was initially hesitant to let him address the hearing, I decided to cede some of my time to let him tell his story. Ray explained to the judge that although he understood the prosecutor's concerns, rehabilitation programs for lifers were limited and so he and other inmates had formed the first lifer support group at their prison. He was soft-spoken and articulate, conceding his violations where necessary, but he argued passionately and effectively for himself. He was his own best advocate.
The judge had read every report from the California Department of Corrections, every write-up, and every letter in Ray's file. I held my breath and struggled to suppress any signs of emotion on my face. And then the judge ruled in my client's favor, concluding that he was not a danger to society and giving him his freedom. Ray smiled, then turned to his wife and grown children, who cried with excitement when they heard the news.
Two weeks later, on the day of his release, Ray rode the bus from the prison to downtown Fresno to meet his family. But when he stepped off the bus, he walked straight to our office. He explained that it just didn't feel right for him to be back in Fresno without thanking us first.
Being an advocate can be overwhelming, thankless, and devastating in so many ways. Watching a personal tragedy play out over months or years through the eyes of your client takes its toll. I made the mistake of thinking I had been appointed to Ray's case to help him, without realizing that he had something to give me as well. His message was so much more than a thank-you. It was a glimmer of hope, a vision of the things that are possible when you refuse to give up. It let me feel the joy, rather than the despair, of advocacy.
Amy K. Guerra, an attorney at the Alternate Defense Office in Fresno, is a freelance writer. Today her client is enrolled in a paralegal study program.