Dateline Texas

Dinner and a Jail Term

Nineteen-year-old Jaime Chavez learned the hard way that for poor people in America, justice is a scarce commodity. Ask him how long he was falsely imprisoned in Texas, and Chavez counts the time off in Spanish: “dos años, ocho meses, y tres días.”

On the evening of February 15, 2000 Chavez made the fateful mistake of accepting an invitation to dinner. His dining companion, Pedro Tinoco, was a casual acquaintance Chavez had made while working as a cook in a Mexican restaurant in Dallas. He had come to Dallas from his native Michoacan only ten months before. It was his first and last outing with Tinoco. They drove to Oak Hill, where in two stops, they collected three other people, and, unbeknownst to Chavez, a black bag full of methamphetamines.

As they drove to McDonald’s, Chavez heard one of the passengers, Enrique Alonzo, tell Tinoco he would take them to the money. It didn’t mean much to him at the time, Chavez would testify. He had no way of knowing that Alonzo was a confidential informant working for the Dallas police. Within seconds of pulling into the parking lot, five police cars converged on Tinoco’s truck.

Two years later, media from “60 Minutes” to the Dallas Morning News would make Enrique Martinez Alonzo notorious. To date, more than 85 drug prosecutions arranged by Alonzo during his stint as an informant have been dismissed by the Dallas County district attorney’s office. In each of the cases, the drugs were fake.

Alonzo planted pounds of cocaine on innocent victims, mostly recent Mexican immigrants. Dallas police drug seizure statistics shot up. But the “cocaine” was in fact ground up gypsum, commonly used for sheet rock and pool chalk.

For Chavez, the nightmare had just begun that February as he sat handcuffed on a bench outside McDonald’s, surrounded by flashing red lights. Nobody explained. One officer asked whether he had any children. He did. He told the policeman he was the father of a little boy named Jaime de Jesus; a baby girl was on the way. The police took Chavez to the station. After a couple of hours of interrogation, they transferred him to the county jail.

Two months later, Jaime Chavez learned by letter that he was being charged with possession of drugs. (Unlike the sheet rock cases, real drugs.) About this time he had his first meeting with his court-appointed attorney, Juan Carlos Sanchez He wouldn’t see Sanchez again until the day of his trial, eight months after being imprisoned.

Sanchez did not call a single witness on his client’s behalf. In his defense, the lawyer claims Chavez’s wife declined to take the stand. No police testified. The only two witnesses were the informant, Alonzo, and Chavez, who pled not guilty. Alonzo told the jury that he saw Chavez pull the black plastic bag out of the car, open it, and show it to him.

The actual trial took about two hours. “My lawyer didn’t say much,” explains Chavez.

Chavez was convicted of the possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver in the amount of 400 grams or greater. The judge gave him 15 years.

Chavez spent 19 months in Henderson prison near Tyler in East Texas. Time moves slowly there, he says. “There were all kinds of dangers,” Chavez recalls.

He appealed his conviction and lost. Then the mother of his children took their kids and moved to Arizona. When the sheetrock scandal broke, the ACLU met with the Chavez family. The civil liberties organization convinced Dallas lawyer Richard Anderson to help. He found Alonzo in the Federal Detention Facility in Seagoville, Texas. There Alonzo signed an affidavit admitting that Chavez had nothing to do with the drugs that night.

“I identified Jaime Chavez as the person who showed me the drugs because I was told that it was necessary to obtain a conviction, and I was in the process of working off my own narcotics case to avoid a 15-year prison sentence,” swore Alonzo.

Advocates wonder how many of Alonzo’s victims left the country or continue to languish in jail. “This case shows that it was going on for nearly 3 years,” notes Will Harrell, executive director of the Texas ACLU. “How many more are out there?”

Faced with their sole witness recanting, Dallas District Attorney Bill Hill didn’t fight Anderson’s bid to free Chavez. And on October 18, 2002, District Judge Henry Wade let him out on a personal recognizance bond. But Chavez is not truly free. His case must be heard by the Court of Criminal Appeals, which can send it back for a new trial, dismiss the charges, or let stand the original conviction. In the meantime, he is an undocumented immigrant who must stay in the United States, but is not permitted to work. He can’t even leave the state to travel to Arizona to see his children.

The only bright spot: Upon completion of an FBI investigation, scores of defendants will likely file damage suits against the city of Dallas. (It is rumored the city has already budgeted money to cover the awards.)

But whatever they offer in the end, a look at the still-pallid Chavez makes one think it won’t be enough. “I can’t get my wife back or be with my children,” he says. “I can’t recapture all the time while I was inside.”

And poor man’s justice always seems to cost a little bit more.

After his release, Chavez and a friend went to visit his former lawyer, Juan Sanchez, who played a prominent role in his conviction, but none in his release. Sanchez wanted to represent his former client in the civil suit. When Chavez demurred, Sanchez got rough. (The lawyer denies threatening Chavez, but the conversation was surreptitiously recorded.)

On the tape, Sanchez explained in Spanish that if he didn’t represent Chavez, the lawyers from the city could call, and ask questions about his case. He then repeated himself in English: “When I am your lawyer and they ask me questions, it’s protected. If I’m not your lawyer, they are not protected. I just want you to understand that. I don’t know what could happen. I want you to understand that. Okay?”

Chavez politely walked away, heading out of the long shadow of the Texas criminal justice system.

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Published at 12:00 am CST