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Calif. Three-Strikes Law Could Undergo Makeover

October 14, 2004  | 

A Nov. 2 ballot measure that amends the California three-strikes law could set free many offenders jailed under the law’s original guidelines. In Orange County, Calif., James Andrew Abernathy, 43, has been sentenced to 25 years for his third strike, beheading his dog to spite his girlfriend. His long history of violence includes forcing his sister to play Russian roulette and threatening to kill his ex-wife’s new husband with a samurai sword, which police found in his car when they stopped him en route to the couple’s residence. This, along with this most recent count of animal cruelty “Terrorizing people and animals is his form of entertainment,” says Deputy District Attorney Heather Brown. “I believe that the three-strikes law was designed to protect the community from people like him.” But others disagree that the law should stand as is. “No one has ever said that 25 years to life is a suitable punishment for animal cruelty,” says Michael Vitiello, a professor at the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. “If we’re punishing them for their past, that’s double jeopardy. California’s three-strikes law, passed in 1994, allows judges to impose life sentences on repeat felons. Proposition 66 would modify the guidelines used to make those decisions, requiring all three qualifying “strikes” to be violent or serious felonies. It would also apply retroactively to all people sentenced under the three-strikes law. Abernathy’s felony animal cruelty charge would not count as a strike under Proposition 66. If it passes, he would only be expected to serve out three years, the sentence usually given for the crime. Because Abernathy has already served much of that time, he would be freed shortly after Jan. 1, when the law’s new guidelines would go into effect.

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