From a City Journal article by Heather Mac Donald. How the murder of 17-year old Lily Burk could have been prevented:
The recent arrest of a vicious murderer in Los Angeles vindicates—tragically, only after-the-fact—several policing and sentencing policies that anti-law-enforcement advocates have fought for years. . .
On July 24 at around 3 pm., 17-year-old Lily Burk was walking down a midtown Los Angeles street on an errand for her mother. A 50-year-old homeless parolee with a three-decade-long rap sheet confronted the high school senior as she approached her Volvo. . .
At 4.52 pm, Samuel pulled the Volvo into a Skid Row parking lot at Alameda and 5th Street and abandoned it. Burk had already been murdered, her head beaten and throat slashed open with a broken bottle; her body was left in her car. . .
Samuel then walked nearly a mile through Skid Row, drinking beer from a paper bag in violation of L.A.’s open container law. Two LAPD officers on horseback stopped him for the public-drinking offense and questioned him. He told them that he was on parole and agreed to be searched, according to the police. They found a crack pipe in his pocket and arrested him. The post-arrest search of Samuel turned up a Volvo key and a cell phone. The next morning, a worker from a Skid Row business discovered Burk’s car with her body in it. Samuel’s prints were in the car; his clothes had blood on them.
Samuel’s apprehension shows the enormous power of broken-windows policing, which the American Civil Liberties Union has fought against on L.A.’s Skid Row and throughout the country.. . . When officers question people in high-crime areas for misdemeanor offenses, they regularly find warrant absconders and parole violators. In 1996, a New York police officer nabbed a young man jumping a subway turnstile, a crime that a decade earlier had been regarded as simply an inevitable response to poverty and too trivial for the police to worry about. The turnstile-jumper, John Royster, turned out to be wanted for an ongoing campaign of terror against women in New York that included murder, rape, and a nearly lethal beating; had he not been picked up for the subway offense, he undoubtedly would have gone on to assault more women.
Of course, the effectiveness of broken-windows policing in capturing Charles Samuel is only half of the story. The other half is the story of how anti-incarceration activists, and their allies in the judiciary, kept Samuel out of prison in the first place, despite his brutal, violent, recidivist record of crime:
California’s “three strikes and you’re out” law is the most reviled sentencing policy in the country—reviled, that is, by the anti-incarceration lobby. It allows prosecutors to seek a sentence of 25 years to life against an offender who has already served time for two violent or serious felonies when he is convicted of a third felony.
Anti-law-enforcement advocates fancifully charge that the law’s main effect is to send away hapless sad sacks whose only misstep was to succumb to the urge for a pizza when they didn’t have enough change in their pockets to buy a slice. These advocates regularly lobby Sacramento to loosen or repeal the law.
Mac Donald is right: the only time the media writes about three-strikes, it is to push a questionable sob story. There is no discussion of these laws when they are used to finally get a violent recidivist off the streets. The media will bang the drums when some offender with a long rap sheet finally kills someone. But then they go back to playing amnesiac and reflexively opposing the laws that could have prevented the crime in the first place.
In Atlanta, for example, it appears that everybody has forgotten about the various sentencing and judgment errors that ended in Eugenia Calle’s murder. Apparently, there will be no professional consequences for the judge and prosecutor who let Shamal Thompson walk as a “first offender” (for the third time), rather than enforcing Georgia’s minimum mandatory law, as they were required to do by law. Are we all just going to collectively forget what happened, until the next time the next recidivist captures our attention by killing someone? No consequences for offenders and no consequences for the prosecutors and judges who fail to do their jobs and put them away: a perfect circle. No wonder judges so frequently identify with offenders, and not with the rest of us.
Heather Mac Donald:
Samuel was a good candidate for a third-strike sentence, thanks to an earlier attack that foreshadowed Burk’s murder. In 1986, he walked up to an elderly man sitting on his porch in San Bernardino (in the so-called Inland Empire east of Los Angeles), grabbed the man’s cane and beat him with it, then forced him inside his home and demanded money. When the old man could only come up with ten dollars, Samuel commandeered the man’s car and drove the owner to an ATM. The terrified senior citizen was unable to withdraw any money, however, whereupon Samuel struck him with his cane again, punched him in the stomach, and threatened to kill him if he called the police, according to the Los Angeles Times. Samuel pled guilty in 1987 to robbery, residential burglary, and car theft and was sentenced to six years. He became eligible for a three-strikes sentence in 1997, following a conviction for another San Bernardino burglary (the 1986 robbery and burglary charges counted as his first two felonies). But his rap sheet failed to note that the 1986 burglary was a residential burglary, as opposed to a non-residential break-in. Only residential burglaries count as “serious” felonies for three-strikes purposes; breaking into a store, office building, or commercial space is regarded as “non-serious” and can be repeated indefinitely without triggering a three-strike step-up in sentencing. (So much for the idea that the three-strikes law is blindly draconian; in fact, it makes careful—perhaps overly careful—distinctions between felonies.)
To make a long story short (I am quoting too much already: read the article, it’s good), Samuel managed to avoid three-strikes in 1997 because somebody did not accurately record his prior record, and no prosecutor caught the error (sound familiar?), and he avoided three-strikes again in 2006 because another prosecutor, bowing to anti-incarceration activism, did not request the sentence (sound familiar?). Over the years, he got other breaks as well and was most recently sentenced to a “community drug treatment program” despite the routine insistence that violent offenders are not permitted to take advantage of such options. Now a 17-year old girl is dead, brutally murdered. How many other people did he get away with killing?
Much misinformation about three-strikes laws circulates in the media:
- When activists say three-strikes laws offer no room for the get-out-of-jail card that is judicial (in)discretion, don’t believe them. Even California, with by far the strictest three-strikes law in the country, still allows judges and prosecutors discretion to release violent, repeat offenders to the streets. Georgia’s law is utterly toothless, with judicial discretion over-ruling virtually any consequences for crime by allowing judges to suspend all time to be served at the times of sentencing.
- When district attorneys tell you they don’t need addition resources, they are playing politics with your safety. Nobody seriously believes that any district attorney’s office has the resources to actually enforce the law. The law has not really been enforced in this country for decades. Every district attorney’s office is so short-staffed, in comparison to the real quantity of crime, that virtually every offense gets brief consideration by some harried prosecutor and then a generous plea deal. Criminals know this and act accordingly. Until that changes, no district attorney should go around claiming that he doesn’t need resources. Paul Howard.
- It is 2009. Even I have learned to use computers, and I am a recalcitrant luddite. The average computer tech could design a system during his lunch break that would record and database all prosecution, sentencing and incarceration outcomes. By suppertime, the data could be available to the public on the internet.
However, if people really knew what was happening in the criminal courts, a lot of heads would roll. Judges and prosecutors would find themselves answering for the leniency so ingrained at every level of the system that it seems natural — so long as you don’t look too hard, and it is not your daughter they are burying this week.