A federal appeals court carved a small but important exception to the state's rigorous three-strikes law Monday, ruling that a 25-years-to-life sentence for stealing a $199 VCR amounted to unconstitutional "cruel and unusual punishment."

In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals based in San Francisco called the case "exceedingly rare," saying the defendant, Isaac Ramirez, had been given a sentence that was "grossly disproportionate to the crimes committed, in violation of the 8th Amendment" to the U.S. Constitution.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld California's three-strikes law. That 5-4 decision held that sentencing thieves and petty criminals to life in prison for a third offense did not violate the 8th Amendment in most cases, but held out the possibility that some cases might be exceptions.

Monday's decision is the first to say that a specific case is one of those exceptions, said USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who argued the case at the Supreme Court last year.

"So the ruling says there is still a door open" for inmates to challenge three-strikes sentences "even though they will rarely succeed," he said.

California's three-strikes law was enacted in the wake of the 1993 kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas by Richard A. Davis, a paroled kidnapper. The law permits prosecutors to charge a minor offense as a serious felony if the criminal has other convictions on his record.

Ramirez's case illustrates the law's reach. In 1991, he pleaded guilty to two nonviolent shoplifting offenses in Orange County. Under a plea agreement, he served a sentence of just more than six months in county jail.

Five years later, when Ramirez was caught walking out of a Sears store in Montclair with the VCR, he immediately surrendered to authorities and returned the stolen equipment. When asked why he took the goods, Ramirez replied, "I don't know. I did something stupid."

At the time, he had filed for bankruptcy after the failure of two businesses that he had started after getting out of jail.

Under California law, San Bernardino County prosecutors could have charged Ramirez with a petty theft misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in county jail. Instead, the prosecutors charged him with one count of petty theft with a prior theft-related conviction. Crimes of that sort, known as "wobblers" in California courts, can be charged either as felonies or misdemeanors.

"That exercise of prosecutorial discretion had grave consequences for Ramirez," wrote 9th Circuit Judge Kim M. Wardlaw. "After he was convicted of this 'wobbler' felony, the jury found that Ramirez's 1991 'robbery convictions' were 'strikes' for purposes of California's Three Strikes law."

A San Bernardino County Superior Court judge, saying that there was a "constant pattern" of criminal activity, had sentenced Ramirez to 25 years to life in prison, with no eligibility for parole until he had served 25 years.

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