The policeman's widow stood in the Oakland courtroom and poured out her broken heart.
She told the jury about a young daughter who would never see her daddy again, a teenage boy who lost his father figure, a wife stripped of her soul mate. She begged that the convicted killer, whom she branded a "beast," be given the death penalty so he could "burn in hell." After the tears had been wiped away, the jury agreed with Dionne Wilson, sentencing to death the man who shot San Leandro Officer Dan Niemi seven times during a routine stop.
But the 2007 verdict didn't bring the mother of two, who met Niemi while working in a South Bay gun shop, peace of mind. Consumed with rage, Wilson clung even more fiercely to the belief that the law should crack down hard on all offenders -- even on someone who just steals "a Popsicle."
When she could no longer live with her anger, the police widow underwent a spiritual journey that's led to an unlikely outcome. Nine years after her husband was gunned down, Wilson has become the public face for a sentence-reduction initiative on the November ballot that she once would have scorned as the work of "mentally ill liberals." Proposition 47 would require misdemeanor sentences rather than longer felony sentences for six crimes, including petty theft under $950.
"Dan would probably say, 'Who are you and what have you done with my wife?' " Wilson, 45, said of her new outlook. "But we need to think about where this whole cycle of crime started. If we can get in front of it, maybe there won't be a person on the other end who is killing a police officer like Dan."
Wilson joins a growing chorus of tough-on-crime advocates from across the country who now agree with social justice champions on the left that the prison-only approach for nonviolent offenders is failing, and that there are more efficient uses of taxpayer dollars to make communities safer.
Last year, 35 states passed less-restrictive laws, including conservative Mississippi and Alabama. The year before, Californians voted overwhelmingly to ease the state's Three Strikes Law, then the toughest in the nation. And in a landmark decision earlier this year, the bipartisan U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to reduce lengthy sentences for most federal drug offenders and make thousands of current inmates eligible for resentencing under the new guidelines.
Proposition 47 itself has netted another unexpected champion. Conservative Christian Republican and Public Storage founder B. Wayne Hughes Jr. has contributed $750,000 so far, with plans to spend $5 million.
"This is a situation where the walls of partisanship ought to come down immediately," the millionaire wrote in the ballot statement.
But other crime victims with tragic tales similar to Wilson's disagree. Three victims groups oppose the measure, including the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, which objects that it would make possession of date-rape drugs and other narcotics an automatic misdemeanor. Misdemeanors carry lighter sentences than felonies, often just probation or short stints in jail.
The initiative also has drawn serious opposition from law enforcement -- including associations of district attorneys, sheriffs and police -- and from groups of retailers and grocers, who contend that property crime would increase. So far, only former San Diego and San Jose police Chief Bill Landsdowne and two California district attorneys have come out in support -- George Gascon in San Francisco and Paul Gallegos in Humboldt County.
"Someone can commit petty theft 10,000 times," San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said, "and we'd still have to always charge it as a misdemeanor." Also under Proposition 47, Wagstaffe noted, about 10,000 nonviolent inmates in overflowing jails and prisons would be eligible to apply for early release.
Proponents say that's exactly the point. The hundreds of millions dollars that the secretary of state's office estimates would have been spent annually to house prison inmates would instead go to education, mental health and drug treatment programs, and victims assistance.
Such leniency once would have been unthinkable for Wilson.
From the moment she heard the knock on the door in the middle of that awful night at her Milpitas home, and saw three police officers crying, the pain was unrelenting.
After the single mother and Niemi had met in the gun shop, they had never been apart. Married in 1999, they had a daughter, Jordan, and Niemi became close to her son, Josh Hewett.
"It was just one of those fairy-tale love stories," said Wilson, sitting in her Morgan Hill home.
But her sense of safety was shattered and her life became a blur of grief on July 25, 2005. Niemi, 42, who had become a policeman just three years earlier, was shot to death by Irving Ramirez, 23, while responding to a noise complaint. Carrying two handguns and some drugs, Ramirez was on probation and didn't want to go back to jail.
Wilson had hoped the death verdict two years later would start a healing process. In her case, it didn't. Even as she remarried, "moving on" eluded her.
She suffered health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder. She drank, favoring appletinis. She tried, and failed, to distract herself, buying things such as technology gadgets and a succession of nine horses.
"Everything was an outward expression of my hate toward Irving and anybody who had ever committed a crime," Wilson said.
Seeking to quiet her roiling mind, she began a "mad quest" of spiritual teachings that brought her to meditation and Buddhism, finding comfort in the concepts of compassion and overcoming suffering.
At some point, she was stunned to realize that she no longer hated the man who had torn apart her family's life. In 2010, she drafted a letter to Ramirez, writing that she regretted making him seem "less than human" at the trial. She no longer supports the death penalty.
"I'm really proud of her to be able to get through the difficult times and be able to forgive," said her son, Hewett, 24, who was close to his stepfather. "I'm pretty sure some people disapprove, but they also don't understand how hard this has been on her and what it's taken for her to get to this point."
Now, she is on the board of the Insight Prison Project, a restorative justice agency based in San Rafael, which tries to find something redemptive even in society's worst as they accept accountability for what they have done. Wilson also is the survivor outreach coordinator for Californians for Safety and Justice, Proposition 47's sponsor, meeting with crime survivors across the state and helping them put their lives back together.
The state remains under enormous pressure to comply with a federal court order and reduce prison overcrowding. And Wilson sees Proposition 47 as another step toward a smarter criminal justice system that would prevent more families from going through what hers has endured.
"I want to get ahead of crime instead of just playing cleanup," Wilson said. "Instead of calling the coroner, let's get into the schools and invest in the families and communities who are filling the prisons. Isn't that what this whole public safety discussion is about?"
Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Follow her at Twitter.com/tkaplanreport.
Under a fixed formula, hundreds of millions of dollars a year that would have been spent annually to house prison inmates will be reallocated.
65 percent -- to the Board of State and Community Corrections for mental and drug treatment programs and diversion programs
25 percent -- to K-12 education, for programs aimed at helping at-risk kids
10 percent -- to Victims Compensation Fund, for grief and mental health counseling, and relocation