Byron Williams, Alleged I-580 Shooter: Poster Boy For Flaws With Three-Strikes Law?

Categories: Crime, Law & Order
Byron Williams mugshot.jpeg
Did Byron Williams pending third strike influence his decision to allegedly trigger a massive gunfight?
Alleged I-580 shooter Byron Williams is a man seemingly torn from a bad 1980s movie. We may never know what was going through the mind of a person accused of stealing mom's guns, donning a suit of body armor, weaving drunkenly around the highway, and then taking out his anti-liberal, anti-Congress sentiments by blasting high-powered weapons at California Highway Patrol Officers.

Yet some police SF Weekly has spoken with are wondering if, somewhere in Williams' mind, he was aware that he already had two strikes under the state's three-strikes law -- which might have led him to attempt to go out in a blaze of glory rather than face a lifetime in prison. This, we are told, is a "constant worry" for police pulling over potentially dangerous subjects.

"Part of the initial debate relating to 'three strikes' was that it could wind up causing a lot of violence and causing police officers to be killed," says Peter Keane, a law professor and dean emeritus at Golden Gate University. "There's the psychological factor of someone knowing they'll never see daylight again and being so desperate that they'd resort to killing someone who attempted to arrest them -- as opposed to the past, where someone would say, 'Okay, you got me, I'm going to prison for a while and at some point I'll be out.'"

Three strikes has been the law of the land for the better part of two decades. As you might expect of a law named after baseball terminology, it does have its flaws. While the odd instances of people being sentenced to life for stealing a dollar from a parked car have rightfully been condemned, other researchers have claimed a correlation between three-strikes laws and violent -- even fatal -- attacks on police officers.

This paper claims three-strikes laws induced a 40-percent bump in police murders. This study claims two-strike offenders propensity to commit a violent crime jumps by 9 percent -- and that California's harsh laws result in violent criminals heading out to terrorize our neighboring states. And this study indicates a 113 percent jump in violent second- and third-strike crimes directed against police officers between 1996 and 2001. Finally, this study claims there is no clear correlation between a jump in officer murders and passage of three-strikes laws in 24 states.  

But, even if there were a clear correlation -- there's no clear way to "fix" this problem.

"I don't think there's any way around it," says Keane. "The only way around it is to change the nature of human beings -- you can't make people feel good about being locked up for the rest of their lives."

Update, 12:59 p.m.: Gary Delagnes, the president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, said he believes that the three strikes law could indeed induce violent criminals to not go quietly when faced with a third strike. That said, he still supports the law.

"I think the fact that he'll now spend the rest of his life in prison is more important than the fact that he might have gotten out at some point without three strikes," Delagnes said. "It's a balance for cops: We have to deal with this guy, but then we never have to deal with him again."

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