Recently in North Carolina, a case involving a traffic stop was heard that provided as riveting a courtroom mystery as anything dreamed up on CSI or Law & Order. The players offered a glimpse into relations between the Latino community and law enforcement officials in Chatham County, which has seen one of the nation's fastest Hispanic growth rates, a 1396% increase from 1990 to 2006. Jury members spent three days listening to the evidence, and in the end, reached a verdict that holds out a little hope. Maybe, when it comes to equal justice under the law for all citizens, white or brown, in a part of the South long represented in Congress by a thinly veiled racist like Jesse Helms, the times they are a-changing.
"This case is about a bald spot," said the assistant public defender who was assigned to the case in her closing argument. "You can call it a shaved spot, a scar, a spot on the head where no hair grows, whatever you want. But bottom line, it's a bald spot." When it came time for the prosecutor to respond, his frustration was evident as he snapped right back. "The defense says this case is about a bald spot. Well, it's not."
The defendant was a 26-year old roofer named Cesar Garcia*. His attorney memorably told the jury in her opening statement that he was "born in a mud hut in Honduras." As his defense unfolded, a portrait emerged of his life in the United States and the events surrounding his arrest in this case. Cesar came to North Carolina to find work, fell in love with and married his wife Amy, a local woman, and they now have three kids together. When Cesar needs employees to help him with big roofing jobs, he posts help wanted notices in a local laundromat. That's how he met Hector Diaz in late September of 2006.
Hector Diaz was from Costa Rica. He responded to a notice Cesar placed seeking help roofing a big barn. He worked hard for one day, then came back for a second. It was a Friday, and after work, Cesar and Hector bought some beer and went to a friend's house to unwind. Along with two other friends, they spent the evening hanging out, talking about how kids in this country have opportunities none of them could have imagined while growing up in Central America. Cesar drank five or six beers, and around one am, realized he was too drunk to drive. Hector Diaz volunteered to drive him home in Cesar's car, and that's when things got sticky.
As Hector and Cesar approached Cesar's apartment complex, Hector was going a little too fast. He nearly missed the apartments until Cesar warned him to make a hard right turn into the entrance. It was at this moment that a marked patrol car heading in the opposite direction on the highway spun around, turned on its blue lights, and followed them into the apartment complex. The officer later testified that he clocked the car going 67 miles an hour in a 45 MPH zone.
Instead of stopping, Hector sped up. He led the patrol car on a short chase, circling twice around the complex's parking lot. Cesar, at this point afraid they were going to crash, undid his seatbelt and crouched down in the passenger seat. "I thought the car was going to flip over," he said from the witness stand through an interpreter. Hector drove the car to the parking lot's far edge, the officer in hot pursuit. Before they had even come to a stop, Hector jumped out, and ran off into the woods.
The officer ran right after Hector, past the passenger side of Cesar's car, without realizing there was anyone else inside, and followed Hector into the woods. After the officer had passed, Cesar waited a few moments, then slipped out of the door and started running himself, crossing in front of his car, heading towards his own apartment. "I was afraid," he explained, when asked why he ran. "Everyone here's afraid of the police."
Cesar's wife Amy let him in and he went into a back bedroom to sleep. Within ten or fifteen minutes, the police were at his door. Unable to find Hector Diaz in the woods, the officer had returned to his patrol car, where backup units were on the scene. They found Cesar's registration in his car's glovebox, the car properly registered to him at his current apartment. Assuming he was the driver and sole occupant, they went looking for him.
According to Cesar and Amy, the officers went into the back bedroom where Cesar was in bed. With the lights off, but their flashlights shining, they handcuffed and dragged him out of the apartment, escorting him to the back of a patrol car. Although he maintained his innocence from the start, telling the police repeatedly that he was not the car's driver, no one believed him. Cesar was charged with four misdemeanors, including DWI and fleeing to elude arrest. He faced a possible six months to a year in jail if convicted.
Nearly a year later, the case was heard before a jury in the old county courthouse, in the middle of the traffic circle in Pittsboro, a small North Carolina town. The prosecution's witnesses were all police officers. Witnesses for the defense included Cesar, his wife Amy, and two of his employees, both of whom had worked with Hector Diaz for the two days he was employed by Cesar during September, 2006.
What should have been an open and shut case of a suspect who ran from the police when pulled over for a speeding violation took a surprising twist when it was discovered there was a videotape of the entire traffic stop. Filmed from the patrol car's dashboard, the videotape shows everything just as the arresting officer saw it. It also shows the detail this case would hinge on. Apparently, the driver of the car had a bald spot. The passenger did not. And although Hector Diaz was remembered by multiple witnesses as having a large scar on the back of his head, a patch where no hair grew, Cesar Garcia undeniably has a full head of hair.
Despite the videotaped evidence, and despite never having seen more than the back of the driver's head in the middle of the night before he had even stopped his patrol car, the officer was sure Cesar was the person he'd chased through the woods. "There were briars, but he was running like a rabbit," he said in court. He claimed that Cesar was sweating and had scratches on him from the briar patch when he cuffed him in his bedroom. But Amy testified that it was normal for Cesar to come home from roofing jobs with minor injuries, including scratches.
While on the stand, the arresting officer suggested to the jurors that Cesar had shaved a spot into the back of his head, then let the hair grow back. He helpfully pointed out the driver's bald spot on the videotape to jurors. Yet despite describing other details of Cesar's appearance during his arrest, neither he nor any other officer mentioned seeing a bald spot on the back of Cesar's head.
The jurors, judge, attorneys, witnesses, and everyone else in the courtroom crowded around the VCR every time the videotape was viewed. Here was incontrovertible proof of what happened on the night in question. Jurors squinted, some of them sitting no more than two feet from the monitor's screen. First the prosecution played the tape, then the defense. At one point, Cesar stood to the side of the screen, peering at the footage, up close and personal before the jury as they weighed his fate over the simple question of whether he was driving the car or riding shotgun.
After three days of testimony, it took the jury only fifteen minutes to reach a decision. The courtroom fell still as the verdict was read. Not guilty, on all four counts. Cesar looked down at the defense table and began to sob. The judge thanked the jury members for their time, and told them to contact the clerk's office if their employers asked for written proof of their service. The bailiff called out, "Court adjourned." And it was over.
In light of the fact that this case's proof was in the driver's bald spot, and there was a videotape clearly showing who had the bald spot, the real harebrained question is why the case was ever allowed to go to trial. As a North Carolina taxpayer, I'm outraged that the local district attorney's office thought this was the kind of case worthy of our already overburdened court system's time. As an advocate for equal rights and justice for all, I'm thrilled this small town jury lacking any Latino members was still able to reach a just verdict so quickly.
Will this case have any lasting impact? I'd like to think it will make the police officers involved more careful in the future, and not as quick to make snap judgements without knowing all the facts. Or was the outcome an aberration, and now it's back to business as usual in this particular county when it comes to suspects who are Latino and presumed guilty? Had Cesar been white, would his claim of innocence have fallen on the same deaf ears? Or would someone with the authority to dismiss the charges have viewed the videotape sooner, and realized this case was short a few hairs?
One sober reality is that now Cesar needs to watch his back, because the officers who think he somehow outsmarted them will either be gunning for him, or more charitably, waiting for him to take one step over some line. And North Carolina's history of racially divisive politicians isn't out of the woods yet. The current occupant of Helms' old seat, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), has lately turned to demagoguery against undocumented immigrants while trying to boost her sagging poll numbers for re-election in 2008.
But hopefully, a case like this teaches everyone involved some important lessons, whether they choose to pay attention or not. Sometimes, the bald spot is the grey area between honest mistakes and willful injustice, and growth can only come when those sitting in judgement of someone who's been wrongly accused are willing to stand up and put things right.
*(Names have been changed.)