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Barred from Freedom: How Pretrial Detention Ruins Lives 

Wednesday, Nov 21 2012

Page 3 of 5

Dorton soon learned the nuances of the American justice system. The string of hearings: arraignments, status checks, motions, pretrial testimonies. For a felony case, the court process takes at least three months before the trial begins. Dorton wanted to get to trial as soon as possible, but his public defender, Qiana Washington, suggested he waive his right to a speedy trial. He was facing 12 years, she stressed, and it was important that they take the time to build a solid case, taking nothing for granted. Building a defense can take months, particularly for those represented by a public defender. Washington had to balance Dorton's case with the two dozen others on her desk.

The weeks slogged on. "If they could keep me in here this long for nothing," Dorton wondered, "Why couldn't they keep me in here for 12 years?" He pushed the thought out of his mind, occupying himself with reading, writing, and push-ups. But at night, when he closed his eyes, those 12 years hammered at his mind.

He'd think about his childhood, growing up with his grandmother in the Sunnydale housing projects — mom on drugs, dad not ready to be a father. Dorton's half-brother lived in foster care. A teenage Dorton told his brother, who was five years younger, that he'd pull him out and get them their own place one day.

While some of his friends turned to drug-dealing, Dorton knew he'd need a clean record to get a real job. So he hustled his own way. He bought candies wholesale and sold them to classmates. He hawked bootleg DVDs, repaired cars and TVs.

His grandma died when he was 17, leaving him homeless. Fresh out of high school, he took on two jobs. In the mornings, he says he'd install cable for AT&T, then take a quick nap in the car before clocking in as the night watchman for a security company. Then he'd take another nap before starting the cycle again. After two years, he'd saved up enough for an apartment and an '80s model BMW.

On some of those nights in jail, the shouts of guards would jolt Dorton awake. A couple of inmates in the 45-person dormitory had been caught talking after lights out. The guards would rush in and corral the whole group into a small room, with no beds or chairs, just bright lights. The prisoners would sit there, drowsy and shell-shocked on the cold concrete, for what felt like hours.

Jail can be too much for some people, and that's an advantage for prosecutors, who leverage it for a plea bargain.

It was too much for Clyde Frazier. The way he tells it, one night he saw a drunk couple stumbling out of a bar. The woman was having trouble leading the man into a cab. So Frazier helped guide the man across the sidewalk. The man did not take kindly to this and, according to Frazier, punched him in the face. Frazier swung back, sending the man tumbling, his head smacking the taxi. The man ended his night in the hospital and Frazier was charged with assault.

Witnesses to the incident had only seen the second punch — Frazier's. He wanted to go to trial, confident the jury would believe his side. After 104 days in jail and still no trial date, he didn't feel that way anymore. He'd had enough. Prosecutors offered him a deal: misdemeanor assault and time served. He could walk out of jail that day if he pleaded guilty. So he did.

Dorton didn't even consider it. The DA's offer required him to register as a sex offender because of the pimping charge. No way, he said. The decision paid off. The accuser proved to be unreliable, her stories shifting and her testimony self-damning. It didn't help that her Facebook page listed her employment as "PIMPIN SINCE PIMPIN BEEN PIMPIN ... HEAD PIMPTRESS IN CHARGE" and her education as "Advanced Pimpin ... keepin hoes in LINE!!!" Worse, the defense team revealed that the accuser had continued working as a prostitute through even as the city paid for her hotel accommodations during the court proceedings. Media outlets noted that the DA's office spent over $2,000 of taxpayer money on her.

Dorton's 10 months in jail cost the city $30,000.

Angel Garcia was locked in jail for six months before the jury acquitted him. His wife had told her psychiatrist that she may have seen Garcia inappropriately touching their 8-year-old niece. The psychiatrist called the police. Garcia claimed that his niece and son had been fighting over a video game, and he was pulling her away from him. There were no other witnesses. Even though Garcia had no criminal history, Judge Nancy Davis set bail at $450,000. (Several San Francisco judges did not reply to interview requests for this story.)

His family visited the first few weeks in jail. It would always end in tears — his sister's, his wife's, his 6-year-old son's, his infant son's. So he asked them to stop coming.

Garcia, 32, had been the breadwinner, holding down two jobs — custodial work at a movie theatre and manual labor at a farmers market. With him gone, Garcia's wife moved into her brother's house. She and her sons slept on the couch. The boys, missing their dad, lost their appetite and became anemic. The 6-year-old began struggling in school.

Once free, Garcia got his job at the farmers market back, but he had to start at the lowest pay grade, which was $5 an hour less than what he was making before. The family moved into a small apartment, which they share with two other people. Five months after the May verdict, the 6-year-old still asks his dad, "When are you gonna leave again?"

"It feels like I'm starting my life all over again," Garcia says. "Starting from zero. Everything's different."

About The Author

Albert Samaha


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