We won respect by going to trial
Pathfinder Press’ “It’s the Poor Who Face the Savagery of the US ‘Justice’ System”: The Cuban Five Talk About Their Lives Within the US Working Class will be available Feb. 1. The selection below is from Part 1 of a 2015 interview by Mary-Alice Waters and Róger Calero with the Five titled “The Reason There Are So Many in Prisons in the US Is Not the Amount of Crime.” Copyright © 2016 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.
MARY-ALICE WATERS: December 17, 2014, marked a hard-won victory for the Cuban people and supporters of the Cuban Revolution all over the world. That was the day that three of you — Gerardo, Ramón, and Antonio — were welcomed home by millions of Cubans who poured into the streets to celebrate. And the day Cuban president Raúl Castro and US president Barack Obama simultaneously announced that diplomatic relations between the two countries, severed by Washington in January 1961, would be restored.
In the months since then, all five of you have been traveling throughout the island thanking the Cuban people for their solidarity and their years of defiant resistance, without which your freedom could not have been won. You’ve also been drawing on your own experiences in the United States to explain what the word “capitalism” means — in human terms.
Each of you worked and lived for a good part of your adult life in the United States. Before you were framed up and imprisoned, like many other immigrant workers you had jobs in construction, as janitors, as deliverymen, in restaurants and hotels, or doing whatever work you could find “off the books.”
Later, during your long years in prison, you were part of that very large section of the US working class that is either currently behind bars or has served time at some point in their lives. Today that’s over six million people — 5 percent of adult males, and nearly 17 percent of adult men who are African American.
Around the world, many people have seen photos of the degrading, inhuman treatment meted out to inmates at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and the US prison camp at Guantánamo. What they often don’t understand is that these institutions of imperialist brutality mirror prisons inside the US whose names are infamous among US working people — places like Attica, Clinton, Beaumont, Florence, Angola, and Pelican Bay. US foreign policy begins at home.
When you speak about life in the US, you speak with authority, and not only here in Cuba. Your words ring true to millions of US families as well. They’ve lived similar experiences. …
In one of René’s first interviews when he was able to return home to Cuba in 2013, he explained that in the United States just going to trial, rather than agreeing under pressure to plead guilty to some charge “negotiated” by the prosecutor and your attorney, earns you a lot of respect in prison. Was that the same experience all of you had?
FERNANDO GONZÁLEZ: When someone is arrested in the US, a high percentage are “overcharged.” They’re accused of many more things than they might have done. It’s a tool consciously used by prosecutors. People find themselves in a situation where some charges — for crimes they probably never committed — will be dropped if they plead guilty to other charges, which they also may never have committed.
Prosecutors pile up charges against you. The law not only allows that; it’s how the entire system is organized. It’s a tool to force you to plea bargain.
Most of those arrested in the US end up with court-appointed lawyers, since they can’t afford an attorney. The lawyer usually advises you to plead guilty, even if it might be better for you to go to trial.
Why? Well, one reason is that if you plead guilty, then all the court-appointed attorney has to do to get paid is to go to court three or four times, at most. He has to be there at the indictment, the plea agreement, and the sentencing. But if you go to trial, the lawyer will probably end up spending at least three weeks in court.
The whole system — even the lawyer who’s supposed to be looking after your interests — pressures you to plead guilty.
There’s another side to this. Let’s say you’re already in the federal court system, as we were. You’re there in court, and they bring in a witness. He says he has spent fifteen years in the Drug Enforcement Agency or the FBI or whatever. He comes in wearing a suit and tie, not a hair out of place, and sits there with an air of “nice guy.” He swears he’ll tell the truth — and then tells one lie after another. Who is the jury going to believe? They’ll believe the cop, of course, not the defendant.
In many cases the defendant has already been the victim of a barrage of unfavorable news coverage. Anxieties about crime here, there, and everywhere are bolstered by the press.
GERARDO HERNÁNDEZ: We saw many cases like that. We met many people who said, “Look, I was no angel. I was doing ‘this’ and ‘this.’ But I never did ‘that’ or ‘that,’ much less the murder I’m serving life for.”
“But when I told that to the attorney appointed by the judge,” the person would continue, “the lawyer said: ‘No jury is going to believe you. Take the offer they’re making and do the time. That’s the best you can do. If you don’t, they’ll slap you with the maximum sentence.’”
“They say that straight up.”
My last cellmate was a guy from Mexico. From the beginning the court-appointed lawyer told him to plead guilty — to murder no less. He asked, “How can I plead guilty to kidnapping and murder if I didn’t do it?”
He’s now serving two life sentences for something he didn’t do. He showed me his court papers. There was a letter from the mother of the man who was killed. She asked the prosecutors not to try those people, because she knew they weren’t the ones who killed her son. But the defense lawyer never presented the letter to the court. …
Most lawyers stick with a program that says, “Don’t go to court because you’ll lose.” If the client is courageous enough to say, “No, I’m innocent. I’m going to trial,” they’ll try to convince him it’s suicidal. …
ANTONIO GUERRERO: Many of the prisoners are Latinos and don’t know English; others are basically illiterate. That cranks up the pressure to cop a plea, since you can’t read the documents in any language. …
There are prisons in every country. But the reason there are so many prisoners in the United States is not the amount of crime. It all begins with the arrest, indictment, and plea bargain. That’s where people begin to be chewed up. There’s no solution within the US justice system, no reform that will change it. It’s not a system that metes out justice to those who’ve committed a crime.
Vol. 80/No. 4 February 1, 2016