Wanting Punishment Break, Bank Robber Tugs At Judge's Heartstrings

For Orange County bank robbery victims, Hollywood fantasies sometimes become horribly real
For Orange County bank robbery victims, Hollywood fantasies sometimes become horribly real

Joseph Pritchard isn't lacking chutzpah. Having violently robbed a Costa Mesa Downey Savings & Loan using a semi-automatic 9mm handgun loaded with hollow-pointed bullets in 2008, Pritchard apologized recently to U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney and sought a punishment break. He thought he would aid his cause by asking the judge to answer a question: Do you believe in giving second chances?

"Before I get sentenced to possibly the majority or even the remainder of the rest of my life in prison, I am moved to beg the court to allow me the opportunity to give it a more clearer view of the individual that is in its presence today, in his entirety, and a more thorough understanding of [my] past, present and future," he said. "That is why I would like to talk to the spirit of the man, who holds the fate, or the rest of my natural life, in his hands."

Convicted felons aren't often wise to tell a federal judge--appointed by a president for a life term on the bench--that his or her "spirit" is at risk for the rendered punishment, but Pritchard must have believed he could pull on Carney's heartstrings.

He then told his life story. His father was a violent, alcoholic Vietnam War veteran. His mother abused crack cocaine. As a kid, his numerous half-siblings beat him. The family became homeless on several occasions. He ate out of trashcans, wore second-hand clothes and walked in dilapidated shoes. He played football and dreamed of someday getting a college scholarship to play cornerback only to wreck those chances at the age of 14 by turning to booze and marijuana. White supremacists pummeled him into the hospital because of an interracial relationship. His own criminal acts landed him in the California Youth Authority at 16. He dropped out of high school.

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"With all of the turmoil I had to deal with, my life was unbearable at the time and I didn't care if I lived or died and, to be honest, I didn't think that I would make it to see my 18th birthday," Pritchard told the judge.

Continuing his life story, he said he attended college in Oakland to learn a trade--computer repair, got a job and eventually got laid off. He got married, fathered children, found a carpentry job in Torrance in 2006 and got laid off the following year. He continued to abuse alcohol, alienated his wife, lived in his car and, after feeling he'd let his kids down, contemplated suicide.

"I just wanted to die," Pritchard explained as his attitude leading up to the 2008 Downing Savings robbery.

Though there is no doubt Carney knew the rap sheet, the bandit failed to acknowledge his prior convictions for burglary, credit card fraud, identity theft and lying to a police officer.

"I am fully aware of the fact that the prosecution wants to paints a picture of me as being a bad person and a menace to society who is a hardened criminal that can only be controlled by multiple years of incarceration," he said.

It was true that Assistant United Stated Attorney Joseph McNally told Carney that Pritchard earned a 206-month term according to federal sentencing guideline that severely punish criminals who employ weapons.

But the FBI-arrested bank robber, who'd been locked up without bail for nearly five years before his sentencing hearing, suggested an additional incarceration of just six more months, a punishment he claims supported his plan "for change."

"Once I am released I will put myself in places that I can meet the influential people that can make a difference in my life and get me the recommendations that I need," said Pritchard, who stole $129,000 from Downey Savings. "I will become a positive role model in the process, not only for my own children, but for fatherless children that have no direction and come from the same background that I have come from."

Then came his pitch: "My question to you, Honorable Judge Carney, is do you truly believe in second chances and that people can change and right their wrongs if given the opportunity and resources to be successful and thrive?"

A former UCLA football player and President George W. Bush appointee, Carney has been known to make unpredictable sentencing decisions that reject the advice of federal prosecutors.

But the judge also knew the pain Pritchard caused numerous Downey Savings employees who believed they were going to be murdered during the robbery.

The crime "had a huge impact" because it was "so frightening," explained the branch manager.

A teller said, "In the past it was easy for me to watch robberies on television, movies and on the news. It never really affected me personally because it didn't feel like it was possible for it to happen to me in real life. On Jan. 22, 1008, my worst fears became a reality . . . I was terrified because I never thought I would see a gun right in my face."

A teenage teller described her trauma that prompted therapy sessions.

"Before the robbery, I lived my life like any normal 19-year-old would live: happy, energetic and living life to its fullest," she said. "On Jan. 22, 2008, my life changed. Defendants Joseph Pritchard and [career bank robber and co-defendant] Ronnie Johnson threatened my life. Along with the verbal and physical intimidation, I also had a loaded, deadly weapon pointed to the side of my head."

She sought the "maximum legal punishment so they may experience even an ounce of pain that this has caused to myself and others involved."

A fourth bank employee said, "Those six minutes will haunt me for the rest of my life."

Inside the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse in Santa Ana, Carney finally answered Pritchard's question about giving a second chance, but he didn't buy the righteousness of letting him out of custody in six months. The judge also didn't entirely accept McNally's sentencing request, chopping off two months.

Today, 37-year-old is housed in the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles. He is scheduled for release in March 2026.

Pritchard's bandit buddy, the 44-year-old Johnson, is living in the same prison. He won't see freedom until Feb. 2033.

[Side note: This case took an extraordinary amount of time to resolve because a federal appeals court determined U.S. District Court Judge Manuel Real, the President Lyndon B. Johnson appointee who presided in a trial, cheated the defendants by rudely interrupting defense lawyers 70 times and the prosecutor only once. After the appellate decision, Carney got assigned the matter.]

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Email: rscottmoxley@ocweekly.com. Twitter: @RScottMoxley.

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