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Life Sentence for Joyriding Overturned in California

by Scott Grammer

Kenneth Oliver, 52, was only 29 when he received a life sentence under California’s “three strikes” law for repeat felons. He was arrested while joyriding in a stolen car as a passenger, and a stolen handgun was later found in his hotel room. His previous convictions included armed robbery.

The three strikes law was amended in 2012 so that only a third strike for a serious or violent felony would trigger a life sentence, but Oliver was not eligible for resentencing. Why? While incarcerated he was found in possession of a book titled Blood in My Eye written by George Jackson, co-founder of the Black Guerilla Family, a prison and street gang. Of the 23 years that Oliver served in prison, he spent eight in solitary confinement for possessing that book.

“It’s almost impossible to believe that what happened to Ken happened here in California,” said Edward Johnson, the lead attorney for the pro bono legal team that represented Oliver. “You know, people think of this as an enlightened state and both the sentence and the time in [solitary] don’t square with that.”

Oliver was freed on June 3, 2019 after Los Angeles County prosecutors said they were dropping their objections to his release “in the interest of justice.” That action came after the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation expunged Oliver’s gang affiliation record and settled a lawsuit over his time in solitary for $125,000. See: Oliver v. Beard, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:14-cv-01890-JVS-PJW.

Michael Romano, director and founder of the Three Strikes and Justice Advocacy projects at Stanford Law School, noted that Oliver’s sentence “was much longer than [for] rapists and murderers,” adding, “[t]here should be some proportionality.”

Oliver has plans to become a paralegal and is re-establishing contact with his three adult children. “I really haven’t wrapped my head around it fully,” he said shortly after his release. 



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