The crime occurred at 9:00 pm. A neighbor saw Darren standing by a car. Ten minutes later the police arrested him as he walked around the neighborhood. He was charged with breaking into the car. It seemed like an open and shut case…except that he was merely at the crime scene, which is not a crime. Except that Darren was innocent. Except that Darren was mentally retarded. Yet, the system threatened to roll over him like it does so many.
Usually a two-page police report is the Court’s sole source for the alleged facts of a crime. One side of a story hurriedly scribbled down. Not because the Court or the prosecutors can’t get more information—it is because they don’t. Deals are made in the blink of an eye, based on limited information and hardly any investigation. And with 80%-90% of those in the criminal justice system being poor, few middle or upper class citizens are exposed to this injustice. Books, movies, and TV shows all lead us to believe that those arrested are well-deserving of their fate, that the police do thorough investigations into each and every crime, that those in jail belong there. When I tell folks how easy it is for an innocent person to be arrested, they usually don’t want to believe me. But it is at times like that when I mention Darren.
We received the referral from an in-town Episcopal Church with a longstanding outreach to the mentally challenged. Darren had been one of their folks for a number of years. After his arrest, two ministers advocated for him, affirming their belief in his innocence. Within days of the referral, GJP began its investigation by visiting the crime location (Cabbagetown – a “transitional” Atlanta neighborhood). When interviewed by GJP staff, the neighbor across the street who had called the police admitted that although there were two people at the car, Darren was merely standing there. Also, the car’s owner reported a number of electronic devices stolen from her car. No stolen items were found on Darren. The police never caught the “other man.” And finally, neither the police nor the Court inquired about Darren’s “unusual” demeanor.
Through aggressive representation GJP was able to (1) establish that Darren was simply standing by the car while another person broke into it, (2) show that he had mental retardation (Darren’s IQ is around 50, meeting the mental retardation standard of 70 and below), and (3) obtain an extensive court-ordered psychiatric evaluation to document Darren’s mental condition. When presented with these facts, both the District Attorney and the Judge took an enlightened approach.
They were willing to dismiss the case if GJP could get Darren enrolled in a more comprehensive residential facility. They did not question Darren’s mental status. But they were aware that he was unsupervised in the evening—which ultimately was what led to his arrest. The Court was also aware of the difficulty of finding residential facilities for the poor with any mental diagnosis. They were aware of the social service cutbacks over the last 20 years which have left the mentally ill on the streets and in jails and prisons. In the end, GJP’s social service staff found Darren a better place to live, one that offered more support, structure, and supervision.
The court dismissed the case against him. GJP’s staff continues to work with him, although his case is long over. We connected him with a variety of other non-profit services. We see Darren regularly in the office, almost every day. He rides his scooter over around noontime to have lunch and meet with staff. Our society, if nothing else, needs to be extremely careful in dealing with those who cannot protect and care for themselves. This is especially true for the criminal justice system, where so much is at stake. It is important to stand with the powerless. It is important to be the voice for those without a voice. This is GJP’s vision – to do justice by helping an innocent man avoid conviction, and by helping him improve his life through our intervention.