LOS ANGELES (AP) — A convicted robber accused of killing four people in home invasions campaigned against California’s three-strikes law even though prosecutors chose not to use it to jail him for life more than a decade ago, it was reported Wednesday.
John Wesley Ewell, 53, pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to four counts of murder with special circumstances. He also pleaded not guilty to robbery and receiving stolen property.
Ewell remained jailed Wednesday without bail. Prosecutors have not decided whether to seek the death penalty.
The South Los Angeles resident already was facing a prison term for theft when he was arrested in October and accused of killing an 80-year-old Hawthorne man, a Los Angeles neighbor and an elderly Hawthorne couple during October and November home invasion robberies.
He could have faced 25 years to life in prison more than a decade ago, but prosecutors didn’t seek a three-strikes sentence.
“He should have been in prison a long time ago,” said Leamon “Kelly” Turnage, whose parents were killed. “It is a shock to me that no one is willing to take responsibility for letting this killer go.”
However, prosecutors said no one could have predicted that a man considered a petty thief would go on an alleged killing spree.
“I really don’t think anybody could pretend to anticipate that this guy would suddenly go from stealing things from Home Depot to murdering old people,” said John Lynch, head deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County.
California’s 1994 three-strikes law permits people with two felony convictions to face a potential life term if they are found guilty of any third felony, even a minor offense such as petty theft.
Ewell, who had two felony robbery convictions from the 1980s, forged a $28,000 check in 1994. However, he pleaded guilty and prosecutors agreed to a reduced sentence of seven years instead of seeking a three-strikes enhancement.
While he was in prison, his wife, Carmen, joined Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes, which was trying to reform the law.
Ewell became an active member of the group when he was released from prison in 2002. He attended a 2004 news conference to back a ballot measure to amend the law and appeared on “The Montel Williams Show” in 2006, the Los Angeles Times reported.
As he spoke, a caption on the screen read, “Afraid to leave his house because he has 2 ‘Strikes.”‘
Ewell apparently stayed out of trouble until earlier this year, when he was charged with petty theft and commercial burglary after authorities said he switched price tags on an item at a Home Depot store in Huntington Park.
Again, prosecutors did not seek three-strikes sentencing, under a Los Angeles County district attorney’s policy of not seeking life terms for people accused of minor crimes.
Twice more he was charged with stealing from Home Depot stores but prosecutors did not seek three-strikes sentencing, the Times reported.
On Sept. 14, Ewell pleaded no contest in the first Home Depot case in return for a 32-month prison sentence, but a judge agreed to postpone sentencing so that Ewell could undergo eye surgery, the Times said, citing sheriff’s officials. He remained free on bail.
Prosecutors contend that 10 days after the court hearing, Ewell attacked and tied up 80-year-old Hanna Morcos in the man’s Hawthorne home as the man’s wife slept. Morcos died of a heart attack.
Ewell also is accused of killing Denice Roberts, 53, on Oct. 13 at a home two doors down from where Ewell lived. Roberts was talking on the telephone when a visitor came to her door, and she was heard calling the man “brother John” before hanging up, authorities contend.
Ewell also is charged with beating and strangling Leamon Turnage, 69, and his wife, Robyn, 57, in their Hawthorne home.
Prosecutors allege Ewell posed as a utility repairman to gain entrance to the home, which is five blocks from the Morcos’ residence.
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