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Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Article V of the amendments to the U.S. Constitution (also known as ‘the fifth’) states quite explicitly that: “No Person shall … be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law… ” This prohibition is repeated in paragraph 1 of Article XIV (the fourteenth amendment) in admonitions to the States, and tacks the now famous ‘equal protection’ clause on to the end for good measure. We commonly interpret this to mean that, as U.S. citizens, we are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty, and that we should all be treated and tried equally under the law without regard to race, gender, religious affiliation, or wealth.

So when a cop showed up at his son’s school and clapped the irons onto Louis Gonzalez III without so much as a by your leave, he must have thought he’d been transported to a third world country. He received no Miranda warning, no explanation of why he was being deprived of his liberty and, as soon as he arrived in the jail holding cell, his property. Only after he’d been stripped naked and dressed in prison scrubs was he, hours later, dragged into a briefing room where a police detective told him why he was arrested and finally ‘read him his rights’. The cop was, as all cops are, convinced he was guilty. The LA Times, in an excellent piece of reporting, describes Gonzalez’s ordeal this way:

He was standing on the sidewalk outside the Simi Valley Montessori School, having just flown in from Las Vegas, hoping to get a look at his 5-year-old son’s new kindergarten. Standing there, waiting for the door to open so he could scoop the boy up in his arms and fly him to Nevada for the weekend.

The first officer arrived on a motorcycle and headed straight for him. He did not explain the charges as he snapped on the handcuffs. As Gonzalez stood there stunned, he noticed little faces pressed against the schoolhouse glass, watching, and asked if he could be moved just a bit so his son didn’t have to see.

Soon he’d surrendered all the items that tethered him reassuringly to the rational, workaday world. The BlackBerry he used a hundred times a day. His Dolce & Gabbana watch. His credit cards and photos of his son. His leather shoes and his socks, his pressed shirt and jacket, his belt and slacks and underwear. Naked in a holding cell, he watched his things disappear into plastic bags. He stepped into a set of black-and-white-striped jail scrubs, the kind his son might wear on Halloween.

A month passed in his single-bunk cell, and then another, and he had nothing but time to reckon all he’d lost. His freedom. His son. His job. His reputation. He had to wonder how much he could endure.

The other inmates in the solitary wing of the Ventura County Jail didn’t talk about their cases, because anyone might be a snitch, but his charges were well-known on the cellblock. More than once, they warned him about what awaited if he were convicted and sent to state prison. With a sex crime on his jacket, he knew, he would be a target forever.

“Like you’re waiting for death,” he said. “Dying would probably be better.”


If Gonzalez was presumed innocent under the law, the Ventura County Jail did not expect other inmates to honor that distinction. He was held in a segregated unit and received his meals through a slot in the heavy metal door. He wore a red-striped wristband denoting a violent offense. An hour a day, the doors opened so he could shower and make phone calls.

Now and then he could hear people going crazy in their cells, kicking their doors, screaming on and on until they had to be removed. He thought of himself as mentally sturdy, a survivor, but knew how easily anyone could crack. So he crammed every waking hour with routine. He read out-of-date newspapers and John Grisham novels and the Bible. He made a paper chess set and stood at the crack in his cell door, calling out moves to opponents down the corridor.

He listened to other inmates dwelling on the food they missed. One guy would say, “TGI Fridays, calamari,” the others would groan, and it went on like that for hours.

He learned a rule about surviving lockup: Never take a daytime nap, no matter how tired you are. Because you might not sleep that night, and you’d be left for hours in the dark of a cold cell with only your thoughts and your fear.


In his single-bunk cell in the Ventura County Jail, on a concrete slab desk, Louis Gonzalez III found himself compulsively writing letters to his 5-year-old son. They were a chronicle of their truncated time together. Telling him how they’d cheered for the Yankees. How his favorite toy had been a mechanical garbage truck. How he’d been a picky eater from the start, but crazy for Cheerios. He never mailed them.

He imagined his son in the cell with him, pushing around his Hot Wheels. In the silence and the isolation, his dream life had acquired surprising vividness. He could almost hear the little plastic wheels on the concrete.

He had a recurring fantasy. He saw himself in prison, 10 or 15 years from now, his conviction long since sealed, his appeals denied. His son, grown into a young man, would be his salvation, would take it upon himself to look into the case. He’d show up and say, “Mom admitted that she lied.”

Gonzalez, an innocent man, would spend 83 days in a tiny, solitary cell, deprived of everything that helps keep us sane: Family, useful employment, entertainment, interacting with other human beings, and for most of us, room to move around. (Most jail cells are no more than six feet by eight feet.) And he was treated better than many. I recently interviewed a young man, also innocent, who had spent ten days in the Sacramento County jail, fending off repeated rape attempts by other inmates. Being ignorant of the ways ‘inside’, he reported the first attempt to one of the jailers and was laughed at. “What do you want me to do? You’re in here to be punished,” the jailer scoffed.

Like Gonzalez, there had been no trial, no conviction by the Constitutionally mandated jury of his peers. But in the eyes of the jailers, the cops, the DA, and pretty much everyone else, both men were already “in [there] to be punished” for the crimes of which they were accused.

And in Gonzalez case, even having the charges dropped, even getting a judgment against his accuser ordering her to pay his legal fees for the false accusation didn’t undo the damage. Eventually his defense team would win a judgment of ‘factual innocence’ for him: A legal statement proclaiming his innocence. It would save his career, but the damage done to his reputation, the fact that he’d ‘done time’—83 days of time—with all that meant in the eyes of the public, could never be undone.

global prison populationSome will say that all of this is necessary for the public safety. To which I must reply: Is it? As can be seen from the graph at right, the United States incarcerates eight times the numbers of people found in European prisons. And yet, the crime rates are comparable. The French were furious when videos of former IMF president, and French citizen, Dominique Strauss-Kahn were broadcast around the world showing him being led around in hand cuffs by New York police. In France the accused are the accused, not the guilty. For a French citizen to be treated like a criminal before conviction is unthinkable. And yet somehow, even though they don’t attempt to drive those accused of a crime insane with solitary confinement, boredom, and constant threats to their safety, their society doesn’t seem to suffer from a constant plague of crimes committed by the accused.

America likes to think of herself as a shining beacon on a hill, as President Reagan once put it. An example for all the world to look to of liberty, with justice for all. But if the Gonzalez case proves nothing else, it shows us how far away from that shining beacon we have strayed. Had Gonzalez not been wealthy enough to fund out of pocket legal expenses greater than most of us could borrow for a new car; had he, like so many Americans, been dependent upon public defenders—who are known to the poor as “public defectors”—he most certainly would have been convicted. Because in American we do not get equal treatment under the law. We are not innocent until proven guilty. We are guilty until proven innocent, and that is exactly how we are treated; and we only have the best justice system money can buy.

Which is why our prisons are full of, not rich people, but of the poor.

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  1. December 17, 2011 at 9:01 pm

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