When Manuel Pena stole a pair of shoes and wallet from a Richmond Montgomery Ward Store 18 years ago, he never dreamt he'd get sentenced to life in prison.
But that's exactly what happened. Pena, who had two prior robbery convictions, became one of the first people to receive a life sentence under the California's three-strikes law.
Now, nearly two decades later, Pena's one of the first three-strikers to be released thanks to Proposition 36, the voter-approved measure prohibiting judges from imposing a life sentence on repeat offenders who commit minor crimes.
"I just think it's a blessing from God. It's something I prayed about," said Pena, who was released from Salinas Valley State prison Dec. 21.
Pena says it took him a long time to come to terms with his sentence. “I was basically walking around in shock for a few years,” he said. “I didn't know if I was ever getting out.”
He's now staying at Victory Outreach, a Richmond recovery home where he's working to get his life back on track.
Though he's grayed and thinned from years of tough prison life, he's grateful for the second chance. And just as that harsh sentence for shoplifting left him stunned 18 years ago, he's now in disbelief that what seems almost just as sudden, he's a free man.
"I still wake up and walk out in the front yard and look up at the sky or see the kids going to school, people driving by,” he said. “It's a blessing to be out and to be free.”
It's estimated thousands of three-strikers across the state are also eligible for possible release.