LOS ANGELES – After 13 years behind bars for trying to break in to a church kitchen to find something to eat, a man who became an example of the harsh sentences allowed by California's three-strikes law has been ordered released from prison.
A Superior Court judge amended Gregory Taylor's sentence to eight years already served and the 47-year-old, who was sentenced in 1997 to 25 years to life, will be a free man in a few days.
Tears streamed down Taylor's face and Judge Peter Espinoza asked a bailiff to get him a tissue.
"I thought I was going to cry too," said law student Reiko Rogozen, who started working on the case in January as part of Stanford Law School's Three-Strikes Project, which filed a writ of habeas corpus seeking freedom for Taylor. "He was scared up until the last minute that it wasn't actually going to happen."
The district attorney did not oppose the group's move.
Taylor quietly thanked the court and his lawyers for "giving me another chance ... and my family for sticking by me."
Taylor was arrested in July 1997 while trying to get into the kitchen of St. Joseph's Church in downtown Los Angeles. He told officers that he was hungry.
The church's pastor, the Rev. Alan McCoy, testified at the original sentencing that Taylor was often given food and allowed to sleep at the church. The priest described him as a peaceful man struggling with homelessness and crack addiction.
Taylor was convicted of third-strike burglary due to two robbery convictions in the 1980s, once for stealing a purse containing $10 and another time for trying to rob a man on the street. He didn't use a weapon in either case, and no one was injured.
During an appeal, a dissenting state Supreme Court justice said Taylor was a 20th-century version of Jean Valjean, a character imprisoned for stealing bread in Victor Hugo's novel "Les Miserables."
Judge Espinoza said the church break-in was not a crime of violence "but drug addiction and homelessness."
The three-strikes sentencing policies of the 1990s "produced inconsistent and disproportionate results," he said.
Taylor was taken back into custody and will be released when his paperwork is completed in at least two days.
His mother and siblings applauded during the hearing and beamed in the hallway afterward. His sister, Angela Taylor, remembered the day her brother called with details of his sentence.
"I thought he was lying. Twenty-five to life? That's crazy," she said.
Taylor got his GED at the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo.
"Even in conversations over the phone, he sounds way more mature," his sister said.
His 78-year-old mother, Lois Taylor, said her son was hungry for a home-cooked meal, so she's planning a huge barbecue to celebrate.
He plans to live in Pomona with his younger brother who runs a food pantry where he'll get a job.
Michael Taylor said he and his brothers are planning a West Coast cruise and if Gregory Taylor gets out before they depart Aug. 23, they'll take him along.
When running for office in 2000, District Attorney Steve Cooley often used the case as an example of how unfair he believed the three-strikes law was. Cooley said if the third strike wasn't serious and wasn't violent, three strikes should not apply.
Cooley said Gregory Taylor's release is "justice long overdue" because his crime was a minor offense.
But Cooley said the three-strikes law doesn't need to be repealed as long as prosecutors apply it "proportionally," taking into account the nature of the offense and the defendant's previous criminal record.