ALTOGETHER, CHEREASE CROSS got $394 in her first two robberies. Her weapons were a curling iron and a perfume bottle, which she pointed at minimart clerks. She was sentenced to 19 months in jail. Her third heist—weaponless, high on crack—netted $440. For that, she was sentenced to life.
It didn't seem equitable or just, Cross, 38, said at her sentencing in Everett last year, joining what are now approximately 200 inmates doing life terms under the state's "three strikes" law, which tosses the key on lawbreakers with three felonies. Officials said they were bound by the 1993 permanent-sentencing law, the nation's first, which considers a bumbling, unarmed drug addict almost equal to a double murderer—almost, since the double murderer may have a chance to be paroled.
But now, for Cross and others like her, there is a shaft of light, a door just opened by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. It ruled this month that California's "three strikes" law is cruel and unusual punishment, providing new fodder for appeals in Western states, Washington among them. "I know that cruel and unusual is a basis for Cherease's appeal," says her attorney, Everett public defender Natalie Tarantino. "But it may be given a little more juice because of the California decision."
Doug Honig of ACLU-Seattle and King County prosecutor spokesperson Dan Donohoe both caution that Washington's law has withstood challenges because it's not as broad as California's—which retroactively turns misdemeanors into felonies. And the 9th U.S. Circuit Court's 2-1 panel ruling limited itself to the case at hand, a convicted shoplifter given a life term (the ruling likely faces appeal to the conservative U.S. Supreme Court).
Still, Circuit Judge Richard A. Paez found the Constitution "does not permit the application of a law which results in a sentence grossly disproportionate to the crime." That is the argument used by Cross and other three-strikers, such as a Seattle man who stole $300 from an espresso stand and another whose third strike was vehicular assault. They say they deserve to be punished, but fairly- a view shared by state Sens. Harold Hochstatter (R-Moses Lake) and Adam Kline (D-Seattle).
They've tried for two years to change Washington's law with a bill that Kline says keeps "coming around like Haley's Comet," and will hold a hearing Friday, Nov. 30 in Olympia (Cherberg Building, 8 a.m.) on a new bill, eliminating second-degree robberies like Cross' that don't merit life sentences. Hochstatter says "I'm game" to push the bill anew, and Kline says the court ruling is a positive sign. If he can't get the law repealed, Kline says, "the second best thing is for the courts to do it for us."