Life Inside is an ongoing collaboration between The Marshall Project and VICE that offers first-person perspectives from those who live and work in the criminal justice system.
In 2001, about six months before Gretchen met her husband, David, he was charged with sexual assault. After a night of drinking, police found him and a friend drunk and half-dressed on the side of the road; she was passed out, and he fled when the cops arrived. Gretchen* says that David initially thought he would be getting a DUI. In fact, he was ultimately charged with "sexual penetration by foreign object/victim unconscious"—the "foreign object" being his hand*.
David did three years in a California prison, three more on parole, and he will spend the rest of his life on the sex-offender registry. Fourteen years after the incident, almost every aspect of the couple's life together has been shaped by that night, from where they can live to whether they should start a family.
Below, Gretchen discusses her marriage, her neighbors, and what the future might bring.
A couple months into our relationship, he told me what had happened. I was 18 at the time. He was 22. I was very young and obviously in a little bit of shock. I thought, There's no way you can go to jail for this. I mean, you guys were two stupid young kids. You're not a monster. You're not the crazy man in the park, the lurker. And I just thought that it would go away.
It never went away.
He didn't go to prison for about a year and a half after we met, when he finally just gave up and pleaded guilty because he said he didn't want to put everyone through the agony of what was going on—mostly myself and his mother. The entire time he was gone, I was finishing my college degree. I would go up to see him on the weekends here and there, but he wanted me to focus on school and told me he was going to be fine.
He still says to this day that prison was the easiest part. He says that now it's even harder because he doesn't know what to expect. It's the constant worry. We're so fearful every time we drive up to our house: Are the neighbors going to be picketing out front? Every time the doorbell rings, my heart drops. You live in this constant state of fear.
We've never made friends with any of our neighbors. We really just try and keep to ourselves. But cops still do home compliance checks where they come knock on our door to make sure he lives there. So we're fearful of that—that somebody might see the police show up at our door every single year and start to get suspicious about what is going on in our house.
To be harassed every time you come home, it's a little uneasy.
For the first three years he was home, his picture wasn't even on the [sex-offender registry] website. You would actually have to go into the police department to find out anything about him. And then they said they had made a mistake. Then, all of a sudden, his name and photograph is on there. Then they said he can't live within 2,000 feet from a school. We had just bought a home and lived about 2,020 feet away from a school. Thank God we didn't have to move.
Every time we turned around, it was something new.
We really wanted to be parents. But the more the laws kept changing, and the more we saw how people on the registry were treated—which at this point, he has truly not had to experience, but he's just terrified of what could be—we just thought it's not the responsible thing to do, to bring a child in the midst of this. To have to explain to them, "Your dad can't pick you up from school, and you can't have friends over."
We went and bought a large map and placed it in my office and just said, You know what? We have four young nieces that all live within about ten miles of us. Our very close friends with kids, they are always spending time at our home. We're going to be the best aunt and uncle we can be, and we're just going to go travel the world. We started traveling everywhere we could. We've gone to the Caribbean, we've gone to Europe. We have a trip planned right now to Greece in August.
This new law finally put us both over the edge. When we first found out about them sending notifications to other countries, we figured out a way around it. We live near the Tijuana border, and I said, Let's try and fly out of there and see what happens. But of course, when we fly back to the US, he's essentially harassed at customs. There's nothing they can do, because he's not breaking the law, but they want to know how he got there and how he's been to all these places. There have been times where they've looked through all his stuff, torn everything apart, asked if he has computers, asked where he's been, asked who he's been with. To be harassed every time you come home, it's a little uneasy.
Now with what's coming, we kind of just feel like our backs are against the wall. Do we pick everything up and leave? We just don't know if that's the right thing to do. We have very close ties to our family here. I'm a business owner. We're financially pretty successful here. We just thought: Either we'll stay in California and just stick this out and hope maybe one day the laws will change. Or we'll leave the country altogether and be done with it.It's just a never-ending punishment.
*Gretchen says David and the young woman got intimate consensually, and police misread the situation when the woman opened the car door to throw up, then fell out and passed out. According to prosecutors, the young woman was passed out all along, and David perpetrated "a sexual attack on a totally vulnerable person."
Names have been changed.