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Pen Pals

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

The most ridiculous notion civilians have about the legal system is that the accused are “innocent until proven guilty.” Actually, thanks to high bails and other absurdities, you can spend a long time in jail before anyone convicts you of any...

by Bert Burykill
Dec 27 2013, 4:00pm

Bail bonds are the only shitty option available to some people caught up in the system. Photo via Flickr user Robert W. Howington

The most ridiculous notion civilians have about the legal system is that the accused are “innocent until proven guilty.” The adage was pounded in my head as a youngun, but the more experiences I’ve witnessed while on prison and parole, the more apparent it’s become that the maxim should be flipped to “guilty until proven innocent.”

I’m not suggesting that there is a simple, cut-and-dried way to enforce laws while protecting and defending people’s rights, and in some cases in probably makes sense to set bail at a million dollars while the defendant spends a few years in jail preparing for trial. But often, I think bail is set way too high, which makes it very difficult for accused criminals to defend themselves. If you’re in jail that means you’ve likely lost your job, have no source of income, and can’t communicate effectively with your family and friends. In a lot of cases, the folks who are in jail are stuck behind bars simply because they’re too poor to make bail. I can’t even begin to describe the number of men I’ve seen sit in the county jail for weeks or months, wasting their lives away, only to have the cases against them dropped later. Of course, there don’t get any apology, let alone any attempt at compensation for the hardship, mental anguish, and ungodly treatment they’ve suffered.

One of the worst cases I’ve ever heard of is that of Cameron Brown. November 16 was Cameron’s tenth anniversary of being locked up for a crime he hasn’t been formally convicted of—a jury has failed to reach a verdict twice. I’ve never heard of anyone enduring more than five years of incarceration in a county jail; even the most complex, high-profile cases usually wrap up in the courts within three or four years. Yet Cameron’s been behind bars in LA County for a decade. It’s not an exaggeration to say his life has been ruined by this de facto sentence, but somehow there’s been very little media attention given to his plight. Maybe that’s because the crime he’s accused of—murdering his own daughter—is so heinous no one wants to touch it.

It all began in 1995 when Cameron had a short relationship with a British woman named Sarah Key-Marer. A condom broke, according to Sarah, and a baby girl named Lauren was born in 1996. Cameron and Sarah's fling was long over by then, and there was a lot of bad blood—he demanded a paternity test, and she got the court to order him to pay $1,000 a month in child support, which on his baggage handler’s salary must have seemed like a lot. Soon thereafter, he filed for sole legal custody of Lauren, and you can imagine this as a tactic he was using to avoid paying for his daughter. Maybe he thought Sarah was using his hard-earned money to do her nails or whatever gold-diggng broads do. He also tried to have Sarah fired and deported at one point. In any case, he was pissed about forking over the bread, a point which prosecutors would later emphasize.

On November 8, 2000, while Lauren was having her once-a-week visit with her dad, she fell off Inspiration Point, a 125-foot-high rocky cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. He claims he was just playing with her after school like he always did and she slipped while throwing rocks. It took the DA’s office over three years to arrest Brown, and their only damning “evidence” came from the autopsy that concluded that her injuries were consistent with an “assisted drop” and not an accidental fall. In addition, cops found it unlikely that the little girl could have navigated the paths leading to the top of Inspiration Point, and they said that he was acting suspicious after the accident or homicide. The prosecution suggests he dragged her up there and launched her off the cliff, as insane as that sounds.

So that was in 2003... Ten years and two trials later, Cameron remains locked up. At the first trial, two jurors voted to find him guilty of first-degree murder while the rest said the crime was involuntary manslaughter (meaning he was being a careless fuckup when he took her on a dangerous hike) or second-degree murder (meaning he knew Lauren might get killed by the hike but took her anyway). At the second trial (held three years later because of an overloaded court system), the jurors were split between second-degree murder and manslaughter, but since none of them thought the crime was first-degree murder, he should have been acquitted of that charge and been allowed to go free on bail at least—except the jury foreman misspoke and said that some jurors had voted him guilty of first-degree murder. Oops.

At this point, he’s already served a longer sentence than he would have gotten for involuntary manslaughter. But regardless of the ins and outs of the case, to me it’s just insane that someone could be locked up that long in the county jail without a conviction. Why is so much time (and so much of the state’s money) being wasted holding this guy in a cell when he could have been put on house arrest while awaiting trial? That way, at least he could have a job and be a productive tax-paying member of society. As it stands now, he’s paying the price for a system that doesn’t have its shit together.

You don’t have to actually do something wrong to get punished by jail time. In another silly case of absurdity, in February a 19-year-old named Justin Carter wrote an obscene threat on Facebook about shooting up a school full of kids and eating their hearts. He followed the post up immediately with “LOL” and “JK,” but it was too late. His bail was set at $500,000, which his family couldn’t pay, so he ended up doing months in jail in seclusion and going all suicidal. It wasn’t until an anonymous donor bailed him out a couple months later that he was allowed to go home. Currently the case is winding its way through the courts, and it might still go to trial, unbelievably.

Jails are full of cases like these that don’t get media attention—people get locked up on obvious BS, can’t afford bail, and end up being punished without a court ever deciding they committed a crime. I’d like to see bails lowered and probation offices developing a program to monitor defendants out on bail. If the accused can work and get therapy they are going to be much better off than they would be rotting in a jail cell going crazy.

I don’t know how to enact change like this. People don’t really give a fuck until injustice like this happens to them, or affects them personally somehow. I wouldn’t give a fuck, but I’ve just seen it firsthand—I’ve seen guys locked up for no reason at all for a week or two until they get to court, and then the judge says, basically, “Oh yeah, our bad. You can go.” By then, the dude already lost his job and got eternally shamed and embarrassed. And for what?

Bert Burykill is the pseudonym of our prison correspondent, who has spent time in a number of prisons in New York State. He tweets here.

Previously: Leave Them Kids Alone