Kurt Streeter reports for the Los Angeles Times:
In 1996, when Michael Banyard was arrested with what was literally a sliver of crack, California’s unforgiving three-strikes law kicked in. Convicted of his third felony, Michael received the mandatory sentence: 25 years to life.
His last chance came down to an appeal filed in federal court that landed on the desk of Judge Spencer Letts. Federal judges are inundated with such appeals and almost never reverse convictions. But Letts, then near 70, isn’t known for following the pack. In 2004, calling the punishment “cruel and unusual” for such a small amount of drugs, he ordered Michael freed.
The judge did something else too: He asked Michael to meet with him in chambers. Letts wanted to know more about the man he’d pulled from prison. The upshot: Letts became Michael’s mentor.
What a bond they formed. White and rich, Letts has the look of a professor emeritus at Harvard. Black and poor, Michael was a former Compton Crip with a barrel chest and a body scarred by bullets.