DOES THE SYSTEM WORK?
On January 25, 2013, felony kidnapping charges against Eva Ruiz Gomez were dropped. For two and a half years the Monterey County District Attorney’s office had relentlessly pursued its criminal case against Eva, and from the very beginning Judge Mark Hood (and Judge Adrienne Grover before him) had prejudged the case and publicly declared that Eva was guilty. Judge Hood effectively prosecuted from the bench, and the five deputy district attorney’s who took turns on Eva’s case of course welcomed his assistance.
After a year and a half of fighting for Eva’s right to a 995 Motion to Dismiss hearing–her last and only chance to appear before a different judge–Eva’s case was finally and fortunately heard by Judge Larry Hayes. Not only is Judge Hayes a thoughtful and intelligent magistrate, also he took the time to read the key documents of the case and look at the evidence–something that Judge Hood and Judge Grover consistently refused to do.
Just as Eva’s lawyer had repeatedly argued, Judge Hayes ruled that the court orders Eva was charged with violating were vague and contradictory, but that she had followed the exact orders of the judge, according to the transcripts of the hearings in question. In fact, Judge Hayes ruled it was Ramon Munoz–the person who brought the kidnapping charges against Eva–who had failed to follow the judge’s orders.
In the months leading up to the January 25th hearing, Eva’s case drew considerable media attention, and because of that many people became familiar with some of the case’s history and facts. After the dismissal, people often remarked, “This proves the system works.” But what does that really mean?
In order for “the system to work” in Eva’s case, it took many months of friends, family and supporters (sometimes up to 35 people) accompanying Eva in court. It took a letter writing campaign targeting DA Dean Flippo; it took fundraising events, months of pro-bono work by two lawyers from outside the county, a motion to remove Judge Hood from the case (which went all the way to the CA Supreme Court), a march through downtown Salinas and rally in front of the courthouse, front page coverage on three local papers, radio interviews, spotlights on the evening news and national news, the involvement of the Mexican Consulate, and every dollar that Eva’s family could scrape together until they were $40,000 in debt.
It took incredible fortitude and resilience on Eva’s part, but also it required a very organized, detail-oriented mind. Over time Eva learned how to make her way through the court system: how to obtain and certify court documents, file and serve papers, order transcripts, represent herself in family court; and she knew her case inside out from working hundreds of hours on it. It consumed her entire life for two and a half years.
By the end, Eva had endured 75 hearings (but never a trial) in criminal court, and during the same time period, another 75 in family court. The documents from her case filled six thick binders. Why did the case drag on so long? It could have been over in a day, if she would plead guilty. But Eva refused to plea bargain, because she was innocent.
As DDA Todd Hornik left the courtroom after the dismissal on January 25th, he told a reporter, “This matter should have always stayed in family court.” Of course that begs the question: Then why did the DA’s office pursue this case so long and so vigorously? If Eva had been convicted, she faced four years in state prison, a felony record for life, and losing her son to Ramon Munoz. Did the DA and judge really want to send this young mother of three to prison, or were they using the threat of prison to pressure her into pleading guilty in hopes of getting a lighter sentence?
Our current plea bargain system allows prosecutors to threaten massive possible punishments to effectively force someone into pleading guilty without trial. Thanks to that kind of coercion, more than 90% of defendants waive their right to a jury trial. As a result, prosecutors wield an immense amount of power with very little accountability.
The court system has so many ways to wear the defendant down, drain them of all their available resources, exhaust them physically and emotionally, humiliate and threaten them. Many people believe that “all you need is a good lawyer.” That’s only true if the defendant also has a will of iron and an endless supply of money, and that’s not the case for most.
Many under these circumstances would not have survived this ordeal. Eva had so much going for her, including enormous community support, but she’s painfully aware that most people don’t have that. Eva’s case was not dismissed because “the system works,” but in spite of a court system that is deeply flawed and needs major reform. Until there’s a balance of power between the prosecution and the defense, there can be no guarantee of justice.