LOS ANGELES — A multiple felon who campaigned against California’s three-strikes law and was free after managing four times to escape its harsh sentencing guidelines has been charged with murdering four people in home-invasion robberies here this year.
Prosecutors charged John Wesley Ewell, 53, with four counts of murder with special circumstances, robbery and receiving stolen property. He pleaded not guilty this week.
Mr. Ewell’s criminal record stretches back more than two decades, including two robbery convictions, said Robert Grace, a deputy district attorney for Los Angeles in the major crimes division. Judges convicted him of forcing a woman to withdraw money at an A.T.M. in 1985 and pulling a man from a parked truck, binding his arms and driving off with the man’s wallet. He became an advocate of repealing the three-strikes law, which allows for life sentences on a third conviction, appearing at events and on the “The Montel Williams Show” and saying he feared being thrown in prison for good.
Under the law, a person with two felony convictions is eligible for a sentence of 25 years to life on any third offense. In most California counties, that law is applied as written, Mr. Grace said. But in Los Angeles, he said, public outcry against life imprisonment for third offenses as minor as “stealing a piece of pizza” led the current district attorney, Steve Cooley, to win his post in 2000 on a platform of reforming the law. Mr. Grace said Mr. Cooley’s “office policy is to treat as a second-strike case” a third offense that is not violent. In the late 1990s, when Mr. Ewell was convicted of forging a check, prosecutors did not pursue a life sentence.
Mr. Ewell was in courtrooms again this summer after three arrests, accused of switching price tags on a vacuum cleaner and other items at Home Depot stores. The judge postponed his 32-month prison sentence so Mr. Ewell could undergo “prescheduled eye and stomach surgery,” said Jacquelyn Lacey, an assistant district attorney in Los Angeles. Prosecutors said Mr. Ewell spent a month of that grace period — from late September to late October — robbing a string of homes in the South Bay area of Los Angeles County and killing four people he either strangled or beat to the point of a heart attack.
Mr. Ewell worked as a hairdresser and handyman near the South Bay homes that were robbed. He is being held without bail.