SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- William James 'Scotty' Rummel, who was ruled a habitual criminal for $229 worth of crimes and ordered to spend the rest of his life in jail, was finally set free Friday.
Ironically, Rummel, 37, ended his term by pleading guilty to a crime to which he pleaded innocent seven years ago. By changing his plea to guilty of theft by false pretenses, the court was able to set his punishment at time served -- seven years and 14 days -- thus settinghim free.
When the barred doors opened for the last time, Rummel said he would 'buy some clothes, try to get rid of the prison smell, and get a good dinner with some good companions.'
Since his imprisonment, Rummel passed his days studying law, typing legal briefs and petitioning for help. Friday's hearing was the culmination of plea bargaining negotiations between Rummel's court-appointed lawyer, Scott Atlas of Houston, and the district attorney's office.
Rummel pleaded guilty to a single charge of cashing a $120.15 check he received for repairing an air conditioner, repairs he acknowledged he never made. In exchange for the guilty plea, the two earlier felony theft charges were dismissed.
The reduced sentence was officially given by U.S. District Judge Edward C. Prado.
In 1973, when Rummel was arrested on the bad charge, he pleaded innocent but was convicted. That conviction, coupled with two earlier felony theft convictions involving a total of $109, made Rummel subject to the state's habitual criminal law, meaning he would never be released from jail.
Rummel's life prison term focused nationwide attention on the state's repeat-offender law when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law earlier this year, saying Texas could set punishment for its felons as it wished.
'They (Supreme Court justices) felt it was not their place to dictate to the state,' said Rummel, a high school dropout who since has gained a strong vocabulary, a knowledge of criminal law and additional mastery of his trades, construction and machine repair.
He said he never gave up fighting his conviction and the habitual criminal law, despite the negative atmosphere of prison.
'People inside have a negative attitude,' he said. 'People are always getting turned down in their appeals; they lose their optimism, they are doing time or time is doing them.'
In October, however, another court ruled that Rummel was entitled to a new trial, the trial Friday at which he pleaded guilty instead of innocent.