Does the system work?

By VALORI GEORGE and SYLVIA SHIH , Guest Commentary


Posted: 02/22/14, 12:00 AM PST

Following on the excellent letter from Chris Fitz on Feb. 10 (“The system did not work”), I would like to offer another powerful example of the system not working: the case of Eva Ruiz Gomez.

For 2½ years, the Monterey County District Attorney’s office relentlessly pursued a criminal case against Gomez, charging her with felony kidnapping. From the beginning, the judges prejudged the case and publicly declared Gomez guilty.

After more than a year of fighting for her right to a 995 Motion to Dismiss hearing, her case was finally and fortunately heard by Judge Larry Hayes, who took the time to read the key documents of the case and look at the evidence — something previous judges consistently refused to do.

On Jan. 25, 2013, Hayes dismissed the case, and all charges against Gomez were dropped.

In the months leading up to the Jan. 25 hearing, Eva’s case drew considerable media attention, so many people became familiar with it. After the dismissal, people often said, “This proves the system works,” but what does that really mean?

For “the system to work” in Gomez’s case, it took many months of friends, family and supporters (sometimes up to 35 people) accompanying her in court. It took a letter-writing campaign targeting District Attorney Dean Flippo, fundraising events, months of pro bono work by two lawyers from outside the county, a motion to remove the judge from the case, which went all the way to the state 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, involvement of the Mexican Consulate and every dollar that Gomez’s family could scrape together until they were $40,000 in debt.

For years it consumed her life. Up against a court system that can drain a defendant of all their resources, exhaust, humiliate and threaten them, few can hang on as long as Gomez did, and most don’t have the crucial network of support she had.

As Deputy District Attorney Todd Hornik left the courtroom after the dismissal on Jan. 25, he said, “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 vigorously? By the end, Gomez appeared in criminal court 75 times, without her case going to trial. The documents in her court file filled six thick binders. It could have been over in a day, but Gomez refused to plea bargain — because she was innocent.

If convicted, Gomez faced four years in state prison, a felony record for life, and losing her son. Did the DA really want to send her to prison, or were they using that threat to pressure her into pleading guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence?

The 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 95 percent of defendants waive their right to a jury trial. As a result, prosecutors wield an immense amount of power with little accountability.

Gomez’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 is a balance of power between the prosecution and the defense, there can be no guarantee of justice.