In August 2000, Erna Larusdottir was badly beaten by her abusive live-in boyfriend. Fearing for her life, she called 911 and was rushed to the hospital by ambulance. The police charged her boyfriend with assault with great bodily injury, a felony and a "strike case" under California law. A strike case, based on an analogy with baseball's "three strikes and you're out," means that after an individual is found guilty of two serious felony convictions, any third felony conviction ensures that the individual goes to jail for a minimum of 25 years to life.
During the investigation of the assault case against Larusdottir's boyfriend, the police asked her if there were any guns or weapons in the house. Larusdottir said that there had been a gun but that she believed her boyfriend had removed it. A few days later, Larusdottir found the gun and, in accordance with police instructions, went to the county courthouse of San Francisco to turn it in.
According to Larusdottir, she was then faced with a dilemma. She did not know how to go through the security checkpoint metal detector with the gun in order to take it to the detectives. As she sat outside the courthouse contemplating what to do with the gun, she was observed by a passerby. According to Larusdottir's testimony, she was checking the gun to make sure that there were no bullets in the chambers. However, the passerby, alarmed at the open display of a firearm, reported Larusdottir to the police. She was arrested and charged with concealing a weapon, a misdemeanor crime that could bring up to a year in jail.
Rookie public defender Phoenix Streets was assigned the case in the courtroom just moments after Larusdottir was arraigned. Streets tried to convince the prosecution's side to dismiss the case. Given their traditionally aggressive stance on prosecuting concealed weapon cases, the district attorney's office refused. The district attorney offered a plea bargain to Larusdottir: If she would accept three years of psychiatric treatment for her alcoholism and related problems, the charges would be dropped at the end of that period. Feeling that she was not guilty of a crime, Erna Larusdottir refused the plea.
Larusdottir began her life in a middle-class family in Iceland. She was a successful student and athlete. As a swimmer, she was awarded a coveted place on the Icelandic Olympic team and competed in the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. As a student, she won a scholarship to the University of Rochester Medical School, where she studied for two years before dropping out. She moved to California in 1977.
Public Defender Phoenix Streets empathized with Larusdottir because one of his own older sisters had felt trapped in a relationship in which she suffered repeated beatings at the hand of her husband. Streets argued to the jury that "Erna was the victim of domestic violence, and she was just trying to follow the law and turn the gun in."
Larusdottir was acquitted, and her name has been cleared. She is still living in San Francisco. There is a restraining order against her boyfriend, who is now out of prison.