Judge frees church thief sentenced to potential life term

LOS ANGELES -- A judge on Monday ordered the release of a man serving a potential life sentence for stealing food from a Los Angeles church.

Gregory Taylor, 47, wept as family members and supporters erupted in applause after the judge amended his sentence to eight years already served. He was taken back into custody and will be released within two days when the paperwork is completed.

The Stanford Law Project filed a writ of habeas corpus seeking freedom for Taylor, who was sentenced in 1997 under California's three-strikes law. The district attorney did not oppose the group's move.

Taylor was arrested 13 years ago while trying to pry open a screen above the church's kitchen door. He was convicted of burglary and was sentenced to 25 years to life because of two prior robbery convictions.

A priest testified Taylor was often given food and allowed to sleep at the church.

Taylor's attorney contended the crime was at most misdemeanor trespassing because Taylor thought he had the right to take food, but Superior Court Judge James Dunn refused to let him present that argument to the jury.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal upheld Dunn's decision, questioning whether a ''claim of right'' defense could ever be valid and saying Taylor could not have believed that he had the right to break into the church. The state Supreme Court ordered the lower court to reconsider the conviction and life sentence.

In the meantime, the high court ruled in a separate case that people accused of theft can be acquitted if they persuade a jury they had a good-faith belief that they had the right to possess the property they took.

When running for office in 2000, District Attorney Steve Cooley often used Taylor's case to describe how unfair he believed the three-strikes law was. He said if the third strike wasn't serious and wasn't violent, three strikes should not apply.