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This South LA Man Committed A Small-Time Street Robbery. 36 Years Later, He's Still In Prison

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Reginald Wheeler. (Photo courtesy of the Wheeler family; graphic by Chava Sanchez/LAist)
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L.A. County District Attorney George Gascón has launched an ambitious series of reforms he says are designed to combat mass incarceration and systemic racism in the criminal justice system.

For one thing, he wants his staff to review past sentences and try to undo those they determine were overly long, a process that could lead to the release of thousands of incarcerated people.

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Reginald Wheeler hopes his will be one of those cases.

A 20-YEAR-OLD'S FATEFUL CHOICE

Wheeler grew up one of 13 kids in what's now known as the Baldwin Village neighborhood of South L.A.

His sister, Tracey Wheeler, remembers him as a protective older brother.

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Reginald Wheeler as a boy. (Courtesy of the Wheeler family)
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"He did what he needed to do to provide," she said. "He tried to take care of everybody."

Part of that included stealing to get what the family needed. Growing up, Reginald Wheeler was arrested several times for theft of things like food stamps and machine parts. He spent time at the Youth Authority and was a member of the Brim Bloods gang.

In 1983, the city was gearing up to host the 1984 Olympics at the Coliseum, just a few miles from where the Wheelers lived.

Then one day that fall, Wheeler, who was 20 at the time, made a fateful choice.

At around 7 o'clock in the morning on Nov. 15, 1983 -- near the intersection of Coliseum Street and Stevely Avenue in Baldwin Village -- Wheeler and an accomplice approached Mark West as he walked to work. Wheeler forced West to walk about 100 feet into a nearby alley, where they robbed him of his watch and about $14 in cash.

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Wheeler was later arrested and put on trial. In 1985, he was convicted and sentenced to prison. Thirty-six years later, he's still there.

"Anybody, even a layman, that reads the facts of my case says, 'He couldn't be in jail all this time for this,'" Wheeler said in a phone call from the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo.

A KIDNAPPING CHARGE BRINGS A LIFE SENTENCE

At first glance, Wheeler's crime seems like a simple robbery. But because he allegedly twisted Mark West's arm behind his back and forced him to walk those 100 feet into that alley -- prosecutors added a charge of aggravated kidnapping.

"It wasn't like the kidnap where you have someone in a trunk tied up in a warehouse," Wheeler said. "This was like moving off the street into a parking stall to be out of view."

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But prosecutors saw it otherwise. Because of the aggravated kidnapping charge, Wheeler was sentenced to 8 years to life in prison.

Wheeler probably wouldn't have gotten that long of a sentence if he were tried today, said Marc Debbaudt, a former prosecutor and ex-president of the union that represents L.A.'s deputy district attorneys.

"The judges were different and the sentencing was different," he said.

But Debbaudt said he understands the prosecutors' decision to add the charge of aggravated kidnapping.

"You file what he did," Debbaudt said. "And 100 feet is definitely within [the] definition of kidnapping and taking to a concealed location is definitely within that definition."

'A MINDLESSLY PUNITIVE ATTITUDE'

But several criminal justice reform advocates said Wheeler's sentence is an example of where the criminal justice system went wrong in the '80s and '90s.

"I think when we look at that period, at about the time when Mr. Wheeler got sentenced, you were looking at a time when whatever was driving our prosecutorial policies and our sentencing policies generally had nothing to do with crime control," said Elliott Currie, a professor at UC Irvine's Department of Criminology, Law and Society.

Prosecutors at the time had "a mindlessly punitive attitude," fueled in part by that era's "tough on crime," "war on drugs" rhetoric, he said.

Politicians, legislators and prosecutors all got on the bandwagon, "even if they actually knew that what they were saying made no sense in terms of equal justice," Currie said. "It created situations like Mr. Wheeler's and thousands and thousands of others here in California."

As a result of that approach, "California ranks first in the country in the population that's serving life sentences, including life with parole sentences," said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a senior research analyst at The Sentencing Project. "But it doesn't just rank first, it sort of blows every other state out of the water."

In 2020, a total of nearly 41,000 people in California were serving sentences of life with parole, life without parole, or "virtual life sentences" of 50 years or more, according to a Sentencing Project study. The next closest state, Texas, had 18,000.

'I FIGURE I'M THE POSTER CHILD'

Wheeler has found an advocate in investigative journalist Don Ray, who happened on the case about 15 years ago and started corresponding with Wheeler.

"It's really sad that people who have committed murder can get off in 10 or 15 years or whatever," Ray said. "But Reggie, who's not wealthy and he's not white, he's among so many people in there -- people of color -- who have just been forgotten."

In 2020, 34% of the people who had served more than 15 years in state prison were Black, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. That's in a state where Black people make up just 6% of the population.

DA Gascón has directed his office to review for possible resentencing the cases of anyone who has served more than 15 years in prison.

Having served well over 30 years, Wheeler believes his case should get a second look.

"I figure I'm the poster child," he said. "I figure my case [is] going to be able to be held up as to why this directive needs to be carried out."

Wheeler would, "on the face of it, qualify as a person who might be nominated for sentence reconsideration," said Michael Romano, who served on Gascón's transition team. He currently heads up Governor Newsom's Committee on Revision of the Penal Code.

But Romano cautions that the process could take a long time, since Gascón is calling for the review of thousands of cases. And it would be up to a judge to make the final call.

Gascón's office said it couldn't comment since it's still putting the new review unit together.

13 DENIALS BY THE PAROLE BOARD OVER THREE DECADES

Wheeler's sentence was indeterminate, meaning he's been eligible for parole for nearly 30 of the years he's spent in prison. But Wheeler's been turned down 13 times over the past three decades, although he acknowledges not having a spotless record.

"I've had write-ups for disciplinary reasons, but no violence," Wheeler said.

Over the years, Wheeler was found to have violated the rules once for having marijuana and once for trying to smuggle drugs into prison. Back in 1988, he stole a radio. He had two violations for being overfamiliar with staff, and two more for having a cell phone.

Parole denials for non-violent rules violations overlook the reality of life in prison, said the Sentencing Project's Ghandnoosh.

"Someone who's been in prison for over 30 years on a sentence that they might have expected to be 10 to 15 years maximum, if they're using drugs, if they are not as polite as the guards would like them to be, if they are using a cell phone to stay connected to family members and loved ones, are any of those things that surprising?" she asked.

In 2019, about one in three people in state prison were granted parole after a hearing, according to the Corrections Department. In 2009, the approval rate was just 16%.

THE PAROLE BOARD IS 'INCLINED...TO DECLINE'

"The parole board is generally inclined toward finding any possible reason to decline someone for parole," said Keith Wattley, executive director of UnCommon Law, a legal services organization.

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Wheeler's family and friends met outside a library in Bellflower to discuss his case. Back row (L) Nephew Jabarr Wheeler (R) Childhood friend Edwin Walker Front Row (L) Sister Tracey Wheeler (M) Friend Don Ray (R) Niece Tang Wheeler (Robert Garrova /LAist )

Wattley believes part of the reason parole is declined so often is because many parole board commissioners have backgrounds in law enforcement.

"There's a problem with the lack of ... cultural competency," he said. "You have commissioners who are unable to understand the lives of the people appearing before them."

At Wheeler's most recent parole hearing in 2018, he tried to explain to Presiding Commissioner Peter Labahn why keeping track of him was hard for his mother, who had 13 kids.

According to the transcript, Labahn asked: "Your mom reproduced too much to be able to parent?"

"You see a commissioner who seems to be showing utter disdain for the people in communities most directly impacted by incarceration ... and blaming the victims of systemic oppression and racism for their own condition," Wattley said.

At that 2018 parole hearing, a deputy district attorney pointed to Wheeler's string of rules violations over the years in characterizing his prison record as "abysmal."

The board turned Wheeler down, and scheduled his next parole hearing for 2025, although Wheeler can petition to have it sooner.

The Parole Board did not respond to a request for comment.

'HE'S PAID HIS DEBT TO SOCIETY'

Meanwhile, Wheeler's family continues to call attention to his case.

Last fall, family and friends held a rally in front of the Hall of Justice in downtown L.A.

"We're here to shed some light," said Wheeler's sister, Tracey. "Maybe ruffle a few feathers. We want to get some attention because he deserves it, he's paid his debt to society."

Only two of Wheeler's 12 siblings are still alive, she said. "It's absolutely heartbreaking."

I met with several family members outside a library in Bellflower recently to talk about Wheeler's case.

As we spoke, Tracey Wheeler gripped a manila envelope that contained her latest letter to the DA's office.

She's hoping this time around the family's plea will be heard.

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