When you hear about someone serving a life sentence, you probably imagine that they committed a very serious crime to land themselves behind bars. Often, that is true. In the cases below, however, the offenses that resulted in life sentences are difficult to believe because they seem farfetched and/or trivial. Here are 10 cases where the punishment (a life sentence) far exceeded the crime..
10. Writing a poem
While wielding a sword can result in a life sentence, so, apparently, can wielding a pen. In 2012, after a secret trial, Mohammed al-Ajami (also known as Mohammad ibn al-Dheeb) a Qatari poet, was sentenced to life in prison for allegedly insulting Qatar’s emir and encouraging the overthrow of Qatar’s government—by writing a poem. It isn’t totally clear which of Ajami’s poems landed him behind bars. The case was said to be based on a 2010 poem criticizing the former emir, though activists say Tunisian Jasmine, which was published in 2011, was the main impetus for the charges. In that poem, Ajami expressed support for the uprising in Tunisia, saying, “We are all Tunis in the face of the repressive elite” and denounced all Arab leaders as “thieves.”
After a 2013 appeal, Ajami’s sentence was reduced to 15 years. After serving more than 4 years in prison, including a year in solitary confinement, Ajami was released after receiving a pardon from the emir.
9. Mailing some LSD
Timothy Tyler was just 24 when he pleaded guilty to LSD distribution in 1994, a conviction which resulted in not one, but two life sentences without the possibility of parole. Tyler, a Deadhead with a history of mental health issues, had two previous convictions on LSD possession when he was busted for mailing LSD to a friend, who turned out to be a confidential informant for the DEA. Because the weight of the paper the LSD was on was included in the amount of drugs Tyler was charged with distributing, Tyler’s guilty plea triggered two mandatory life sentences.
In 2016, after serving more than 20 years of his sentences, Tyler was granted clemency by President Obama.
8. Stealing a pair of socks
Curtis Wilkerson had a rough childhood, growing up with a drug-addicted single mom. When Wilkerson was 16, his mother died and he fell in with a rough crowd, serving as a lookout in a string of robberies. He was caught, convicted, and served 6 years in prison. When he got out, he turned his life around, and spent the rest of his 20s and early 30s avoiding trouble. That all changed one day in 1994 when, while killing time at the mall waiting for his girlfriend, he slipped a pair of plain white tube socks into a bag at a Mervyn’s department store. Security guards apprehended him as he left the store, and debated calling the police. They did so, forever changing Wilkerson’s life.
Wilkerson was convicted of shoplifting, and because of his two 1981 convictions, this was considered his “third strike,” triggering a sentence of 25 years to life. In an interview from prison, Wilkerson expressed his shock that the socks he swiped (“ordinary white socks. Didn’t even have any stripes,” which had a retail value of $2.50) had resulted in the possibility that he might spend the rest of his life behind bars.
7. Stealing videos from Kmart
Leandro Andrade was an Army veteran and father of 3 when he was caught swiping children’s videos from two different Kmarts in 1995. Normally, such a theft—9 videos with a retail value of about $150—would be classified as petty theft, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine or 6 months or less or in jail. However, because Andrade had a rap sheet that included a string of residential burglaries 10 years earlier (during which Andrade was unarmed and no one was home at the burglarized houses), Andrade was charged with 2 counts (because the thefts had taken place at two different Kmarts) of petty theft with a prior, a felony. When he was convicted of the charges, under California’s three strikes law, he received a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life—for each of the two charges.
Andrade’s lawyer argued that this sentence was cruel and unusual punishment. The case ultimately went to the US Supreme Court, which ruled that, because Andrade will eventually be eligible for parole (at age 87), the sentence was not unduly harsh.
6. Treating chronic pain
When you picture a drug trafficker, an Ivy League-educated, middle-aged man in a wheelchair is probably not the first image that comes to mind. Nevertheless, 45-year old Richard Paey, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and chronic pain from injuries sustained in a serious car accident in his 20s, was sentenced to a minimum of 25 years in prison for possessing Percoset and other pain pills weighing over 28 grams. This amount of pain medication was sufficient to classify him as a drug trafficker under Florida law, despite that fact that police who had placed him under surveillance could point to no evidence that he’d sold or attempted to sell any of the pain medication in his possession.
Initially, Paey’s doctor, who had agreed to continue to prescribing to Paey (sending prescriptions by mail) when he moved from New Jersey to Florida, backed up Paey’s story in interviews with the DEA and when verifying Paey’s prescriptions when pharmacists checked them. However, when authorities began treating the doctor as a suspect, he then claimed some of the prescriptions were forgeries. Paey refused a plea deal, both because he maintained his innocence, but also because he feared a drug conviction would make it impossible to get the pain medication he needed to lead a normal life. Ironically, Paey received higher-dose pain treatment in prison, via a morphine pump paid for by the state, than the level of pain medication he was convicted of possessing on the outside. After serving nearly four years in prison, and after intense media scrutiny, Paey was pardoned by Governor Charlie Crist and his Florida cabinet.
5. Burglarizing your own home to save your mother’s life
Lance Saltzman had a difficult childhood. After being mauled by a pit bull when he was 17 months old, Saltzman struggled with cognitive deficits resulting from the attack. As a teen, Saltzman developed a serious drug problem, dropped out of high school, and was convicted of a series of misdemeanor offenses. Saltzman lived at home, where his mother and stepfather had a volatile relationship. In March 2006, when Saltzman was 21-years-old, his stepfather pointed a gun near his mother during a heated argument and fired it. Police were called, and took the gun, but returned it to the stepfather a few days later. Shortly thereafter, the stepfather pulled the gun on Saltzman’s mother and threatened to shoot.
Fearing for his mother’s life, a few months later, when no one else was home, Saltzman entered his mother and stepfather’s bedroom and took his stepfather’s gun. Saltzman’s mother credits her son for saving her life, saying, “As far as I’m concerned, I would be dead right now if he hadn’t taken the gun.” Saltzman sold the gun to a friend, who used it in a burglary. Saltzman was tried and convicted on armed burglary (since the gun he stole was used), theft of a firearm (from his own home), and being a felon in possession of a firearm. Because it was within three years of Saltzman’s release from prison for a burglary he committed when he was 16, he was given a mandatory sentence of life without parole under Florida’s Prison Releasee Reoffender Law. Saltzman’s mother, who was “dumbfounded” by the conviction, asks, “How do you burglarize your own home?” She also believes that if her son had shot his stepfather, instead of taking the gun, he’d probably be a free man under Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws. Even Saltzman’s stepfather says that if he’d known his stepson would face a life sentence, he would never have reported the theft to police.
4. Stealing a slice of pizza
No one is arguing that swiping a slice of a pizza from a group of kids, the charge faced by Jerry Dewayne Williams, isn’t a jerk move. But is a life behind bars the appropriate punishment? Under California’s three strikes law, Williams, who maintains the children gave him the pizza, was sentenced to 25 years to life when he was convicted of felony petty theft for taking the slice of pizza in the summer of 1994. Williams had several previous drug and theft convictions and had served two years in prison for attempted robbery and for violating his parole. However, after being released, Williams was working turning his life around, and had gotten early release from his parole.
When he returned to prison, Williams was known to his fellow inmates as “pizza man” and shared a cell with a convicted murderer—a convicted murderer who had a shorter sentence than Williams faced for pizza theft. When the California Supreme Court eventually ruled that judges could overlook previous convictions to spare a criminal life in prison under the three strikes law, Williams asked the judge who sentenced him to reconsider. After serving more than five years, Williams was released. He says he is wary of returning to prison for any minor offense and notes that when he goes out for pizza with friends, “I make sure people are around when I ask for it.”
3. Stealing fajitas
To be clear, Gilberto Escamilla did not just steal a couple of fajitas. Instead, Escamilla, a former employee of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, stole more than a million dollars worth of fajitas, which he had delivered to his employer and then resold, over the course of nine years. Escamilla’s scheme had been surprisingly easy to pull off; authorities only caught up with Escamilla when he missed a day of work at the juvenile detention center. When the fajita delivery showed up, his surprised colleagues told the driver the facility didn’t serve fajitas. In turn, the surprised delivery driver informed them that he’d been dropping off regular fajita orders for almost a decade.
Escamilla, who was 53 at the time of his 2018 sentencing, pled guilty, and was sentenced to 50 years in prison, as well as fine and restitution for the cost of the fajitas. The sentence was so heavy because Texas law treats thefts of more than $200,000 as a first degree felony, allowing sentences of up to 99 years in prison, and additionally, allows for more severe penalties for those who commit crimes while acting as a public servant. Escamilla appealed his sentence, but as of spring 2019, continued to face the prospect of dying in prison for his fajita-related crimes against the state.
2. Murdering someone (when he was 1.5 years old)
We all know toddlers can seem like criminals on occasion, but the Egyptian government took it to the next level when they sentenced a 4-year old boy to life in prison for murder, in connection with a 2014 riot. The boy was one of more than 100 people were convicted in connection with the riot. If that wasn’t ridiculous enough, the boy was actually only one-and-a-half at the time the supposed crimes, which included four murders, were committed.
Lawyers for the boy’s father reported that the court refused to consider the boy’s birth certificate as evidence he had been involved in the riots and the boy’s father reported that he had been taken into police custody when he refused to hand over his toddler to police. The Egyptian military ultimately admitted that because of a mix-up with a similarly named 16-year old, the boy’s conviction was an error. The toddler and his father, who had been on the run since attempts by police to detain them both, returned to their home in Southern Egypt after officials provided assurances that neither would be arrested.
1. Insulting the King of Thailand on Facebook
Whoever, defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.
The definition of what constitutes an insult or a threat is never specified, but Thai courts have applied a very broad standard when bringing charges. Cases have been brought against people for making sarcastic comments about the king’s dog online, calling a dress a Thai princess designed for a Miss Universe contestant “ugly,” and scholarly questioning of the account of a battle in which the King of Thailand participated—a battle that took place in the 16th century.
The harshest sentence handed down for violating Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws (at least as of early 2019) belongs to Vichai Thepwong, a former insurance salesman who was sentenced to 70 years of prison for 10 violations of the lèse-majesté law and 11 defamation offenses, for posting content that insulted the Thai royal family on a Facebook account he created under someone else’s name. Because Vichai pled guilty to his crime, his sentence was cut in half to 35 years. Vichai’s lawyer indicated that he was placing his hopes on the possibility of a royal pardon. Vichai said of his sentence, “It’s not beyond my expectations. It can’t be worse than this.”