CRIME STORY has received permission to re-print Michael Romano‘s newsletters from Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project whose mission is to reverse the most unjust criminal sentences. Romano and his colleague Susan Champion were interviewed by Amanda Knox for CRIME STORY and you can find the podcast and the transcript of that interview here. You can find a story about Romano’s participation in a U.S. Congressional field hearing on criminal justice reform here.

Sometimes our clients are better lawyers than we are…

Yesterday afternoon, Rodrigo Escarcega was released from a life sentence imposed under the Three Strikes law for speeding away from a police officer during a traffic stop—and he wouldn’t be free today without his tenacious self-advocacy. As he walked out of prison, a free person for the first time in over a decade, he was met by Moses Gallegos from the ARC Ride Home team, brought to his reentry program in Los Angeles, and reunited with his loving family.

We’ve been representing Rodrigo (who goes by “Pete”) since 2017. We initially sought resentencing under Proposition 36, and after years of litigation the trial court rejected our effort, ruling that Pete was ineligible for relief because he was “armed with a deadly weapon” (his car) as he sped away from the traffic stop, going 55 MPH in a 25 MPH zone, even though no one was injured. We appealed all the way to the state Supreme Court, and we lost.

As we prepared a new round of litigation, Pete filed his own habeas corpus petition, arguing that medical evidence was improperly withheld from him. That began a hunt for old records, and we eventually uncovered gross misconduct by his defense attorney, who complained that he was unprepared because he needed to go on a family vacation. Pete tried to represent himself, claiming that the driver of the car was actually someone named Syd Vicious. Pete was prescribed medication for delusional thinking and sentenced to life in prison.

As the habeas case grew, prosecutors continued their fight against Pete’s release, arguing among other things that Pete’s mental health and the incompetence of his trial attorney were irrelevant. As we proceeded to another court hearing, George Gascón was elected District Attorney of Los Angeles, and the position of the prosecutor on Pete’s case quickly changed—she would agree to his release. With that, the judge took fewer than 5 minutes to recall and vacate Pete’s life sentence and order him released “as expeditiously as possible” based on the time he already served.

When we spoke to Pete while he was on the road home, he told us how much was enjoying his first cup of coffee in the free world after so many years behind bars. We asked him if he’d gone to Starbucks and he said, “Nah, I’m old school. But I put in a little hazelnut creamer, and it was delicious!”

As always, we couldn’t be happier for Pete and his family. We’re also incredibly proud of our staff and especially the Project students that worked on Pete’s case over the years, including Christopher Lewis (SLS ‘17) and Noah Breslau (SLS ‘20), who drafted multiple pleadings and briefs in the case, investigated new facts, visited Pete in prison, and ultimately helped win his freedom.

Thank you all for your support!

– Mike

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