What if I told you that I know a man who spent 23 years on the registry for a rape that didn’t happen? Your first instinct might be to deny that could occur. After all, there are safeguards in the criminal justice system that should not allow it.
First, the police must have evidence in order to arrest a man. Second, the prosecutors must have evidence in order to try him. Third, the public defenders must provide the man with sound legal advice regarding whether or not to enter a guilty plea. Finally, the court must ensure that a person who enters a guilty plea understands his legal rights including the impact of his plea.
The criminal justice system failed this man at every step. First, the police arrested the man, who was an 18-year-old high school student, based upon the statement of another high school student. She first told her father, then the police that she had been raped. She later falsely identified the man, a fellow high school student who had never spoken to her, as her assailant. Based on that identification, the police arrested the 18-year-old man and he was sent to jail where he stayed for a long time because he had no money to pay the bail ordered by the court.
During this time, the alleged rape victim was physically examined and a rape kit was used to confirm what had happened. The results of that procedure were clear. There was no rape.
Unfortunately, these facts did not stop the machinery of the criminal justice system. The prosecutors continued to prosecute the man and kept him in county jail. The public defenders told him it was likely that he would be convicted of rape and that he faced a long prison term, perhaps 10 years or longer.
After spending nine months in county jail, the man was afraid of spending 10 years or longer in prison and finally relented. He agreed to plead guilty to a rape he did not commit. He did not know at the time, however, that there had been no rape. Why? Because neither the public defenders nor the prosecutors revealed that fact to him. It was a fact that was kept from him for a very long time.
As the result of his guilty plea, the man was required to register as a sex offender. He was not allowed to return to high school in order to complete his high school education. He could not find a job. He could not find housing. Therefore, he was homeless and often slept in alleys on cardboard if he could find it. On bare streets if he could not.
During the cold winters, he would travel on city buses for hours at a time just to stay warm….and safe. When the buses shut down for the night, he waited until the BART system opened so that he could be warm and safe again.
Ten years after the man pled guilty, the alleged rape victim recanted. She admitted that she had not been raped. She admitted that the man she had identified had never physically touched her. She admitted this to the public defenders and even signed a sworn statement to that effect. That did not, however, end the tragedy.
Instead, the public defenders promised to help the man clear his name. The public defenders did not keep their promise and for another 12 years, the man was punished by the requirement to register as a sex offender. During that time, he worked intermittently and was often homeless even though he married and fathered three children. Why? Because he could not live with his wife and children in their Section 8 housing. His inability to live with his family ultimately resulted in a failed marriage.
That brings us to the present when more than a decade after the public defenders promised to help the man clear his name and more than decades after he entered a guilty plea for a rape that did not happen, they finally honored their promise. They filed a motion to vacate his conviction and that motion was granted.
And so is there a fairy tale ending to this story? The answer is no.
The man continues to suffer because of his 23-year requirement to register. He is still listed on privately owned websites as a sex offender. He still has difficulty finding a job.
His hope today is that he can find peace. My hope for him today is that I can help him find justice as well as compensation for his losses. This story will be continued.