You Can Beat the Rap, but There’s No Beating the Ride: When Getting Justice Ain’t Justice at All

Meet “Alexander,” which is of course a pseudonym for a young seventeen year old, black male client arrested while doing what many young people do throughout history, hanging out with friends he shouldn’t have. Alexander is young, bright, well-spoken, a high school student, and poor. He’s arrested with literally nothing to his name, no car, no money, and no house. But Alexander has managed to make it to seventeen, in a rough neighborhood, with meager means, without a criminal record, or prior arrest. His parents were not that lucky. Alexander’s parents both have experience with the Texas criminal justice system. Now both disabled, his parents heavily rely on Alexander for assistance at home, care for younger siblings, and for his income.

Alexander is arrested for offenses related to drugs and weapons. The officer who arrests him knows little to nothing about Alexander. The probable cause for Alexander’s arrest is a stretch, at best. Perhaps an officer with greater experience would have realized as much and refused to take him in at all. But alas Alexander is not so lucky, and he gets a ride to the jail. Even after a confession by Alexander’s friend admitting to all wrong-doing (that is ultimately not recorded by the officers’ video recording equipment). He is charged with two offenses, bonds out, and finds himself in court for the first time. Confident in his innocence, and with a false sense of security in a system he knows nothing about, he is sure that the truth-seeking prosecutor, whose role it is to seek justice, will quickly discern his lack of involvement in this mess and let him go. Alas, he is wrong.

When I met Alexander his cases had already been pending for several months. He had filled out plea paperwork for both cases without the representation of counsel, and at the last minute decided he did not want to plea. I quickly learned that he had in fact never been represented by counsel in the numerous times he had been to court, which sadly is not uncommon. He knew nothing about the evidence against him. He didn’t know what was happening with the co-defendant’s case, or what became of the car he was arrested in.

After reading the offense report and determining the lack of evidence against him, I pleaded with the prosecutor to dismiss the two cases against him. Of course, the prosecutor knew next to nothing about Alexander’s cases at the time, and for settings thereafter, for one reason or another, refused to dismiss his cases. Both cases were ultimately set for trial. For over one year, Alexander continued coming to court. Navigating court settings in which we waited for videos that were never found, even after subpoena duces tecums, for pictures of contraband not initially disclosed with the offense report, inspections of evidence, interviewing of witnesses and so on. All the while, Alexander would get better offers from the prosecutor, but never for a dismissal. To his credit, Alexander remained steadfast in his conviction that he was an innocent man.

His relationship with his family, his home-life, career, and schooling suffered as a direct result of the two ongoing cases. His parents and siblings couldn’t understand why Alexander wouldn’t just “get this over with.” They demanded him to explain what was taking so long. He lost his job when his employer found out of his two pending cases, and lost income that was very important to his family. But Alexander refused to give in, and his courage inspired me.

Preparing for Alexander’s trials was a difficult journey. Witnesses became hard to locate and secure. Co-defendants hid, and added new frustration to the process. I filed subpoenas and with Alexander’s help got ready for trial. The day before trial the prosecutor disclosed “new” Brady material that came from statements the officer conveyed to her. Statements that did not involve anything new, because they were descriptions of events that occurred on the night of arrest. Events that I had pointed out about a year earlier.

Ultimately Alexander’s two cases were dismissed. But the damage and havoc the system had imposed on his life were traumatic. He was able to graduate high school, but without the job he’d lost during the life of the cases, his family suffered. He lost a very lucrative promotion at a comfortable job, because of them. He was unable to save up to go on to higher education during this long journey, or save up for a car, or help provide for his disabled parents, or younger siblings. He beat two guilty convictions, but the process destroyed several components in his life.

He is not the only poor young minority client that has had this experience. Why is a system full of people who are supposed to be professionals allowing this kind of destruction to happen? A family shouldn’t be ruined, a young man’s prospects destroyed, all while he is presumed innocent, because he is trying to do the right thing and fight for his good name. The act of the State’s unfounded conviction in two cases that should have been dismissed on the first day, caused turmoil in a young innocent man’s life for reasons I still do not understand. Reasons I was never able to fully articulate to Alexander. It would have been so much easier for his immediate life, for him to agree to a plea early on; to accept the cookie cutter punishment dished out to him and move on down the road. But he refused to compromise his integrity and admit to being guilty of something he was not. I don’t know if I would have had the courage, and patience to withstand the pressures of that kind of home-life, those kinds of responsibilities, and the weight of the government at seventeen. Alexander is my hero, and a reminder of the toll this system of justice can have on a person’s life, even without a conviction.

About Victoria Erfesoglou

Victoria Erfesoglou is licensed to practice law in California and Texas. She practices criminal defense in Harris and contiguous counties. She is a proud graduate of Gideon's Promise and Harris County's FACT Program. Victoria is extremely please to serve as the Assistant Director of the Texas DNA Mixture Review Project. She is deeply committed to indigent defense and fighting the systemic failures of the criminal justice system. She has certification in the Greek language and degrees in Psychology and Philosophy.

Twitter: @VErfesoglou