Three Strikes Law: Homeless Black Man Sentenced to Life After Stealing $14 Is Freed By California Judge Following 20 Years Behind Bars

A California man spent two decades in prison for stealing the equivalent of three Venti-sized White Chocolate Mochas at a Starbucks. The fact that severe drug addiction robbed him of so many years of his life angered a judge that eventually re-sentenced him and gave him his freedom.

The same judge believes race played a part in why he was sentenced to life for such a low-level and non-violent crime.

David Coulson was 35 when he was sentenced to life in prison for stealing $14.08 and a “small, inexpensive digital scale,” The Guardian reports.

In 2002, while living in a tent near a freeway, Coulson wandered into a residential garage that was open and grabbed a handful of coins from a jar and a few smaller items.

Despite leaving the premises, he was later caught by the homeowner, who had chased him down and punched him. Coulson escaped but was later detained by police who arrested him.

This was his third offense in his life and because of the “three strikes” law adopted in 1994, Coulson would spend the next 20 years behind bars.

According to the California Courts, “California’s Three Strikes sentencing law was originally enacted in 1994. The essence of the Three Strikes law was to require a defendant convicted of any new felony, having suffered one prior conviction of a serious felony to be sentenced to state prison for twice the term otherwise provided for the crime. If the defendant was convicted of any felony with two or more prior strikes, the law mandated a state prison term of at least 25 years to life.”

Criminal justice reformers and critics of the law claimed it was “too harsh” on people of color.

After his arrest, a psychiatrist diagnosed Coulson with schizophrenia and the courts deemed him not competent to stand trial. Ironically, after doctors medicated him (outside of a state hospital), the courts said he “regained his competence,” and allowed him to stand trial.

“I was crying out for help. I was doing whatever I could to get the attention I needed,” he said to The Guardian, thinking back on the trial that changed his life. “I was praying it wouldn’t end up with me in prison for the rest of my life, that someone would come to me and say, ‘What’s going on? What’s making you act this way? Why are you the way you are?’”

Coulson was transparent about his hard childhood, including his mom being a teen mother, him being put up for adoption at 4 years old, beat by his adopted family until he passed out, being sexually abused, and later his introduction to drugs.

During his 2006 sentencing, the judge even showed compassion about childhood, saying, “I certainly wouldn’t want to have lived a childhood that Mr. Coulson had to live.”

Still, the judge said, “He’s just committing one burglary after another … He’s been given a number of opportunities and he just hasn’t learned,” and sentenced Coulson 35 to life.

This was devastating to him. He said, “A life sentence was a death sentence to me.”

Originally, Coulson would have been eligible for parole in 2032, where he would have been 65 years old and ordered to pay $10,020 in fines and fees.

In August 2022, California’s department of corrections and rehabilitation recommended that Coulson be resentenced.

Law enforcement said in acknowledgment of his achievements in the classes he took and how the substantial amount of volunteer work he has performed over the years, he should be freed.

On Tuesday, Sept. 13, Judge Daniel Lowenthal said, referencing his case, “I’m shocked and angry at how you were treated by the system.”

Coulson openly sobbed in the courtroom and said, “This is all I’ve ever wanted in my life. I’ve been crying out for help all my life, and no one has ever heard me.”

“Finally, somebody has heard me,” he wept.

Kate Chatfield, an advocate with the Wren Collective, a social justice group, also heard his plight, and that of others. She condemned the Three Strikes Law, saying in many cases it is “cruel” and nonsensical. She said, “Keeping people in when they are 50, 60, 70 years old makes no sense and is cruel. If somebody is not a public safety risk, it’s just punishment for punishment’s sake.”

Activists like Chatfield are fighting to change the laws in California in the 2022 elections.

Kritika Singh reports for the Davis Vanguard, a community-based watchdog and news reporting organization, “Criminal and racial justice advocates argue that California’s Three Strikes Law continues to uphold unnecessarily lengthy prison terms and disproportionately affects people of color and those with mental and/or physical disabilities.”

“In fact, statistics from a 2021 memorandum by the California Law Revision Committee show that ‘Of those serving time for third strikes, 5,426 or 72 percent were Black (3,458 people) or Latinx (1,968),’” Singh informs.

Coulson’s case is a clear example of these statistics.

Now, Coulson lives in Torrance, California, in transitional housing. He has reconnected with his wife, Veronica Nezey, and his family, including his son David Lynn Coulson Jr, and his grandson, Alijah, 13.

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