`Life' for pizza theft enrages lawyers

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Lawyers for a Californian man who will spend the next 25 years behind bars for stealing a slice of pizza are campaigning to prove that he was victim of "cruel and unusual punishment" - a violation of the US Constitution.

They plan to appeal against the sentence imposed on Jerry Dewayne Williams, a 27-year-old warehouseman from Los Angeles, who has become a cause celebre for opponents of "three-strikes-you're-out" laws introduced by some US states in their war against crime.

California's "three strikes" laws - a term from baseball - compel state courts to jail criminals for 25 years without parole on their third felony offence, no matter how trivial, if they already have two serious or violent felony convictions. These differ from US federal laws, under which the third offence must be violent and serious.

Williams's crime was stealing a slice of pepperoni pizza from four youngsters outside a cafe on a pier at Redondo Beach, Los Angeles. The 6ft 4in Williams and a friend (who was not prosecuted) asked for a piece, but were refused, so they helped themselves. Although his offence was only classified as a lesser misdemeanour, it was upgraded to a more serious felony charge because he had five previous convictions - including possession of cocaine, robbery, armed robbery, and unauthorised use of a vehicle.

His sentence, of 25 years to life without parole, has outraged civil rights groups, who say the laws are excessive, unevenly administered, and will cost taxpayers millions in prison-building costs. It became public only hours before the release of the first of 3,000 non-violent prisoners in the Los Angeles area because of budget cuts. Yet the punishment of Williams, who is black, did not cause a widespread political outcry, largely because white-dominated voters are terrified by violent crime, and approve of attempts to curb it.

Nor is his case unique. A 23-year-old man, with an IQ of 70, was sentenced to 30 years for stealing a video recorder and a coin collection. His "strikes" were setting fire to litter bins and a car glove compartment. And a 25- year-old Californian man, who previously took part in a non-violent robbery and theft, faces 25 years for stealing meat worth $5.62 (£3.50).