Before I comment about a recent North Carolina justice system travesty, I would like to thank those individuals who have taken time to post comments about my blogs. In my latest blog about physical abuse and torture of inmates in North Carolina prisons, there were comments made by Walt-in-Durham to which I feel compelled to respond. Walt acknowledged the horrendous prison conditions, then accused Mr. Nifong of wanting to send the three Duke lacrosse defendants there. The fact of the matter is that, as a prosecutor, Mr. Nifong had the unsympathetic mandate to try and take away the liberty of the defendants. Prosecutors Freda Black, Bill Wolfe, Thomas Keith, Ken Honeycutt, Scott Brewer, and all prosecutors within the state are obligated to do their best to try and place criminal defendants behind bars. I have no reason to feel that Mr. Nifong took any glee from prosecuting the Duke Lacrosse defendants. He was merely doing his job. As blog respondent Scarlet Hill wrote, the focus of the blog was on the inhumane and barbaric conditions in the state’s correctional facilities. Respondent Justice58 posed a very important question… what does NC Attorney General Roy Cooper have to say about this?
Attorney General Cooper, as well as Governor Bev Perdue, and other politicians should be outraged, and they should not only denounce the abuse, but take substantive steps to curb it. In my blog I mentioned a few measures that could be taken to address this problem of abusing prisoners, but I am sure that they will fall upon the deaf ears of the politicians, the Attorney General’s Office, and administrators in the North Carolina Department of Corrections.
Although being guilty of a crime does not give correctional staff the right to abuse inmates, there are a number of people incarcerated in North Carolina who are innocent of committing a crime (overwhelmingly these are people who are disenfranchised, poor, and people of color). Less than a week ago, the “News & Observer” reported that 51 year old Gerardo Vilchez had been in jail for twenty one months awaiting trial on charges of trafficking cocaine. Wake Assistant District Attorney David Sherlin had no case against Mr. Vilchez, and, in an interview with the reporter, stated that during the 21 months he was in custody, Mr. Vilchez made “inconsistent statements.”
Mr. Vilchez said that he was merely driving a tour bus and that he had no knowledge of the fact that the tires were packed with cocaine. The jury wisely chose to accept Mr. Vilchez’s position as being closer to the truth than Prosecutor Sherlin’s case. Had Prosecutor Sherlin been successful, Mr. Vilchez would have been forced to serve a minimum of fourteen years in prison.
Although the merits of Mr. Nifong’s case can never be objectively presented because the attorney general quashed the investigation and prosecution in the Duke Lacrosse case, there is no doubt in my mind that the actions of Prosecutor Sherlin were far more egregious than what Mr. Nifong has been accused of doing. There can be no doubt that the defendant of Mr. Sherlin suffered far greater injustice than the Duke Lacrosse defendants. Actually, there is another defendant in the cocaine trafficking case, Mr. Victor Hugo Lopez. He has served nearly two years in jail awaiting trial, as well, and Prosecutor Sherlin now says he doesn’t know what he’ll do with the charges against Mr. Lopez. Such an admission by Mr. Sherlin does not instill in me much confidence in the strength of his case against Mr. Lopez, who will probably end up being yet another innocent victim of the state, incarcerated on a flimsy charge for an excessively long period of time awaiting trial.
Because of the state’s Helmsian tenet of “selective justice based on Class and Color,” this abhorrent detention and treatment of these suspects (Vilchez and Lopez) is acceptable. The prosecutor responsible for the gross injustice is not demonized and vilified by the attorney general, the governor, the media, and there is no wave of public backlash against him. Had Vilchez and Lopez been from families of wealth and privilege, it is unlikely that they would have even been charged by Prosecutor Sherlin, much less held in custody.
Director Thomas Maher, of the NC Indigent Defense Services, states that records are not kept of how long people spend in jail awaiting trial. Record keeping on this statistic should be instituted immediately because many people who are suspected of crimes are incarcerated while the prosecutor attempts to build a case for conviction, often when there is no probable cause. Holding people in jail while awaiting trial is one way of trying to obtain a plea deal in a case that falls apart, or that had no merit in the first place. That was the unsuccessful strategy used by Wilson District Attorney Howard Boney and Assistant District Attorney Bill Wolfe against James Arthur Johnson, who was incarcerated 39 months while awaiting trial for murder, rape, kidnapping, and armed robbery (charges which were later dropped).
Finally, holding an innocent man, Mr. Vilchez, in jail for 21 months while awaiting trial did not make North Carolina streets safer, but it did cost NC taxpayers $46,000. That amount doubles to a minimum of $92,000 when you factor in the other trafficking suspect, Mr. Lopez, who will most likely be freed, as well. In cases such as those against Mr. Vilchez and Mr. Lopez, not only does Lady Justice suffer, but so do Tar Heel taxpayers.