In 1997, 18-year-old Andre Wilks broke into a Nissan Maxima parked outside of a Target store in Granada Hills and stole a cellphone. The vehicle burglary qualified as a third strike for Wilks, who had been convicted in 1995 for a purse-snatching spree committed one week after he turned 16.

If the purse snatchings had been committed a week earlier, Wilks would have been too young for the crimes to qualify as prior offenses under California's tough three-strikes law. But they were not, and so Wilks, at the age of 18, was sentenced to life in prison — for stealing a cellphone.

The three-strikes law was passed by an overwhelming 72 percent of California voters in 1994 shortly after 12-year-old Polly Klass was kidnapped and murdered by freshly paroled felon Richard Allen Davis. At the time, the law was hailed as a way to keep murders, rapists and child molesters off the streets for good. In recent years though, it's been seen as a major contributor to overcrowding in California prisons.

Today, about one-third of prisoners serving life sentences in California — more than 3,000 inmates–are there for nonviolent, non-serious crimes. Prisons are filling faster than they can be built, and the tide of public support is turning for three strikes — a Field Poll conducted in 2011 found that three quarters of Californians would support reforming the state law.

Among those changing their minds about three-strikes is the prosecutor on the Andre Wilks case — the very person who fought to get the 18-year-old locked up for the rest of his life.

At the time, Jackie Lacey was a young deputy working under District Attorney Gil Garcetti. Now chief deputy under retiring District Attorney Steve Cooley, Lacey is one of the top contenders for her boss's job (Carmen Trutanich, who you can read about in this L.A. Weekly cover story, is another).

The Wilks' case had been a slam-dunk for the prosecution. Several eyewitnesses, including Wilks' twelve-year-old accomplice, testified that they saw him break the rear passenger window and let himself into the car. Wilks himself, after attempting to hide at the parking lot, was apprehended at the scene; the stolen cellphone was found in his backpack.

The district attorney's office offered Wilks a relatively good deal: seven years in prison if he pled guilty to stealing the phone. Wilks refused, according to his lawyer, against his advice, the advice of Wilks' family and even the advice of Lacey herself, believing that he would have a better outcome if he went to trial.

But that was a decision with real consequences.

At the time, as Lacey explains, it was a matter of policy in district attorney's office: If the defendant in a three-strikes case, like Wilks', refused to take a deal and chose instead to tough it out through a trial, the prosecution would seek the maximum penalty — 25 to life.

When Wilks was called to testify, he took the witness stand and flat-out denied that he stole the cellphone. During a tough cross-examination by Lacey, Wilks broke down in tears.

“It was sort of like a kid who lies to his parents about breaking a lamp and gets caught, and they start crying, except it was in court in front of a jury,” remembers Wilks' attorney, Richard Petherbridge. “Everyone was a little stunned.”

“I've been a public defender now for 23 years, and I've seen stuff like that happen in juvenile court, but I've never seen that happen in adult court,” Petherbridge adds.

By all accounts, it was an “emotional” trial for everyone involved — court transcripts record the judge using that exact word several times to describe the case. Wilks cried not just on the witness stand, but throughout the trial. Lacey, who had a son the same age as Wilks, grew so emotional that she was forced to request a recess at one point during the proceedings in order to compose herself.

In the end, of course, Wilks was found guilty — and with that felony conviction, on the hook for his third strike.

“It does not give me any pleasure whatsoever to sentence an 18-year-old man to 25 years to life in prison,” Judge Shari K. Silver said when handing down the ruling, “but I believe the Legislature and the people of the state of California, in enacting the three-strikes law, specifically indicated that they want career criminals off the street.”

Public defender Richard Petherbridge disagreed. “It bothered my sense of justice,” he says about the Wilks case. He recalls it easily, and with detail, nearly 15 years after the fact.

Wilks received his life sentence in April 1998. In the months that followed, though, Petherbridge refused to give up: He filed affidavits alleging prejudice by Silver (“We call it 'papering the judge,' ” he says). In August, Judge Silver reviewed Wilks' sentence and ultimately reduced it to the seven years originally offered by the district attorney's office.

At the time, Lacey disagreed with the court's decision. During the review hearing, she told the court: “I don't think that at this stage, with his state of mind the way it is, that we're doing him or society any good by letting him out early.”

But today, Lacey takes a more textured view. “The activity that happened in that Target parking lot wasn't — it just wasn't worth punishing him for life,” she says. Her change in outlook neatly aligns with the office's current policy as to the three-strikes law.

“I think the way that our office is doing it now is the right way,” Lacey says, “which is if you review a third strike case and the case is not a serious or violent felony, we would treat it as a second strike case unless there was something unusual in the person's background.”

Steve Cooley, who rose through the ranks of the district attorney's office during three-strike's heyday, has during his tenure pioneered a more nuanced approach to the law. Cooley was initially spurned for his views, but today those views are employed more often than not by district attorneys around the state — a trend Lacey says she would maintain.

“Under the Wilks case, if it came up today, no question about it, the office would pursue it as a second strike case not a third strike,” Lacey says. She adds, “And I would continue that policy.”

Lacey's stance is not unusual — in fact, it's one of the things that all candidates in the race for district attorney of Los Angeles all appear to agree on. Carmen Trutanich, Alan Jackson, Danette Meyers and Bobby Grace have all voiced their approval of Cooley's policy.

Using three-strikes sparingly is smart politics. It can be seen as one way to help reduce the burden on California's overcrowded prisons, as well as its county jails, which are now bearing a larger share of responsibility for housing nonviolent offenders under the state's realignment plan. Authors of the “Three Strikes Reform” Initiative, who have collected more than 830,000 signatures in hopes of getting it on the November ballot, want voters to make the connection between California's prison problem and the state's three-strikes law.

Under the proposition, Cooley's position, in which a life sentence is only sought for a violent or serious third strike, would become law. The initiative would also allow re-sentencing for current inmates whose third-strike crimes were neither violent nor serious.

Eighteen years after three-strikes was passed, Cooley's view is slowly gaining traction with the public, and in turn, the candidates for district attorney — but whether or not a more forgiving interpretation of the law works to reduce crime remains another question altogether.

Andre Wilks was released in 2003 after serving seven years in state prison for the theft of a Motorola cellphone. In 2006, records show he was arrested again, for committing armed robbery in Florida.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.

LA Weekly