A twice-convicted Santa Rosa burglar serving life in prison for getting caught with stolen computer equipment was ordered released Friday under voter-approved amendments to the state's tough three-strikes sentencing law.

Dale Curtis Gaines, 55, bowed his head as Judge Shelly Averill gave the order that would set him free after 15 years behind bars.

Family members in the courtroom gallery, including his mother and siblings, dabbed their eyes with tissues as the judge spoke. Outside, they celebrated with warm hugs.

"I'm overwhelmed," said Gaines' niece, Rachael Brown of Sausalito. "I haven't seen my uncle since I was 10 years old."

The mentally disabled man was the second in Sonoma County to benefit from November's passage of Proposition 36, which mandates early release for three-strikers whose last offense was neither violent nor serious.

Four other cases are pending. Among the next to be considered is Sammie Lee Ford, 39, who was sentenced to 25 years to life in 2003 for breaking into two jewelry stores at the Petaluma outlet mall. His hearing is April 15.

Another up for release is transient Robert Bamber, 63, who was convicted of having a stolen car in 1995 and also sentenced to 25 years to life. His hearing is April 16.

Two others do not yet have court dates. Another hopeful died in prison last month of a drug overdose, said interim Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi, whose office is handling the remaining cases.

Statewide, about 150 inmates have been released out of an estimated 3,000 eligible under the new law.

Gaines had two prior convictions when he was found guilty in 1997 of possessing computers stolen from the American Cancer Society in Santa Rosa. He was sentenced to 27 years to life under the law meant to target repeat offenders.

Last year, lawyers from Stanford University Law School's Three Strikes Project took up his case, contending that he was an exception to the law because of his diminished mental capacity.

They pointed to a letter written in 2010 by Gaines' prosecutor, Ann Gallagher White, who expressed doubt about the fairness of the sentence and offered help with an appeal.

With the passage of Proposition 36, Gaines had another avenue for release. Earlier this year, Judge Averill found him eligible based on his convictions and reviewed his prison record in determining that he posed no danger to society.

She said White's letter helped persuade her. The District Attorney's Office did not object to setting him free.

"You have an opportunity not many people in custody have," Averill told Gaines. "Please take advantage of that opportunity."

His lawyer, Michael Romano of the Three-Strikes Project, said he would start out at a San Francisco-based re-entry program that provides housing, job training and mental health counseling.

Gaines was ordered to be let out of custody Friday, but it was not clear if that would happen. State prison officials in Vacaville were holding up his release from Sonoma County Jail, court officials said.

"He's never hurt anyone in his life, yet he's served longer than some murderers and rapists," Romano said.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.