April 26, 2004 12:00 PM

Walking out of prison in October 2001 looked like the end of a nightmare to Pamela Martinez. Condemned to life in 1996 for stealing a $30 toolbox—her third felony conviction under California’s tough three-strikes law—she spent years poring over law books and, against incredible odds, succeeded in getting her sentence overturned on the grounds of ineffective legal representation. “I knew in my heart I would win,” says Martinez, now 51, who agreed to do time on a lesser charge. “I didn’t deserve to die in prison.”

But, like Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, she cannot quite escape her past. This February a Los Angeles judge ordered her back to jail for 65 days, ruling that an error in calculating the time she needed to serve on the plea bargain had resulted in her premature release. “I was devastated,” says Martinez, who believes returning to prison in L.A. would mean losing the life she has rebuilt in the San Diego area, including her friends, the modest room she rents and her sales job at a Home Depot. “She’s the poster child for rehabilitation, and the state wants to throw her back in prison,” says California Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, one of many legislators to take up the case. “It makes no sense.”

A former surfer and cheerleader, Martinez got swept up in “the whole party lifestyle” and became addicted to heroin during the years she worked on the ski patrol in Aspen, Colo. Her first felony conviction came at 23 for driving the getaway car in a robbery, the second for swiping a chain saw. She only began to sober up that day in July 1996 when Superior Court Judge Dudley Gray threw away the key. “I realized, this is it, they’re trying to take my life,” recalls Martinez, who saw her husband for the last time in the courtroom. (A fellow addict, Albert Martinez died while she was in jail.)

Though Martinez was a model inmate, “she was sent to prison for X number of years and should serve that time,” insists Margot Bach, spokeswoman for California’s Department of Corrections. Others disagree. Last month Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote a letter to the California Supreme Court asking that her sentence be commuted to time served.

At a hearing April 13, Martinez made an impassioned plea to the Board of Prison Terms; whose recommendation the Supreme Court will weigh before deciding her fate in the coming weeks. “I’ve been through amazing changes,” says Martinez, who lectures to teens about the perils of drugs. “If I can reach just one or two kids, that’s better than sitting in a prison cell.”

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