A San Francisco man who stole two $29.99 watches from a Sears counter saw his life sentence for the crime upheld by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Wednesday because of California’s three-strikes law.
Richard Lawrence Stewart, who was 37 in 2006 when he stole the watches, was a felon with a previous conviction for forcible oral copulation. That violent sex crime, in addition to his convictions for a drug-related assault and six other convictions for drug crimes, was enough for the court to uphold the sentence.
Although Stewart admitted the theft to a security guard and argued he intended to give them as Christmas presents, he was sentenced under the three-strikes law, which mandates a 25-years-to-life term for any felon who has been convicted at least twice for serious or violent felonies. The law was softened in 2012 so that some felons could avoid the life sentence, but felons with a conviction for violent sex crimes are still subject to the law.
The appeals court rejected the claims made in Stewart’s defense that the life sentence violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment, asserting that a previous case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court justified the decision. That case involved a California felon who stole videotapes totaling $153 and was sentenced to 50-years-to-life in prison. The court argued that state courts could take Stewart’s forcible oral copulation conviction into account when rendering their decision.
Stewart’s attorney, Solomon Wollack, said he will request a lighter sentence and will appeal to the district attorney and the governor, stating, “He just slipped through the cracks and wound up getting an enormous sentence for a petty crime.”