13 Mar 2015

Oregon man commits no crime, but held in jail for 900 days

Benito Vasquez-Hernandez has orange canvas slip-ons, a single spoon, a wristband he wears at all times. He has little else.
He lives in a small cell with a single window high above his head and sleeps on a skinny mattress resting on a cinderblock frame.
Vasquez-Hernandez is treated like any other inmate in the Washington County Jail. But he's unlike every other inmate there.

At 897 days and counting, the 59-year-old may be the longest-held material witness in Oregon and perhaps the nation. He's waiting to testify in a murder case.
Legal experts are aware of no other witness jailed for so long. While no one appears to systematically track such cases, a law professor recalls only one similar instance - more than a century ago, in California.

In Oregon, a judge can keep material witnesses in custody until they testify, or release them pending trial. Under state law, material witness holds have no expiration, but detention typically lasts less than a week.

Civil rights advocates say a witness should never be locked up for long - certainly not more than two years. But it's not only the extraordinary length of Vasquez-Hernandez's imprisonment that disturbs them.

It's also his staggering disadvantages. He's poor. He's had no formal education and can't read or write. He's an immigrant who doesn't understand the American justice system. He's had no contact with his family.

As his days in custody have turned into months and then years, prosecutors have successfully argued that Vasquez-Hernandez's testimony is essential to their case and that he probably wouldn't show up to court if released.
His defense attorney has tried to get Vasquez-Hernandez out, devising a plan to take his sworn statement in a deposition so a judge could free him.  

But Vasquez-Hernandez didn't cooperate -- either because he couldn't follow what was happening, as his attorney argues, or because he didn't want to, as the prosecution claims.
Led into the courtroom in an orange jumpsuit and chains last September to make the statement, he had only questions: "Why am I in jail? It's been two years. It's been too long."
His imprisonment now exceeds that of the other material witness in the case: His 28-year-old son, Moises Vasquez-Santiago, who was finally released last fall after 727 days in jail.
The incarceration pushed the son to breaking, a doctor noted. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia while in custody. His lawyer said the isolation Moises felt drove his unraveling.

As for the father, his days inside wear on.
The lights come on at 5 a.m. For eight hours each day, he can leave his cell to drift around the common area of his unit. There's a TV and a cluster of tables where inmates eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. Some sit, talk and play cards. Windows look out on a slab of pavement, a rec space surrounded by walls. For 16 hours, he's alone.
The lights go out at 10 p.m.

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