Reflections from County Jail

Editor's note: The following essay was composed by Joe Gersten during his incarceration at the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center. It is printed here unedited.

Much has been said about the "Gersten Case," yet it surprises me when my own friends fail to understand why I am sitting here in jail, a victim of one of over 35,000 car thefts in Dade County every year. I sit here. Never arrested. Not charged with a crime. Never brought to trial. Never convicted of anything. I sit in jail, like a common convicted criminal but without even a criminal's right to due process.

In America, everybody is supposed to have his day in court. Everybody, that is, except me. I agree, it is very difficult to understand. In America, the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty. I don't even have the status of being "accused."

Now I realize why my friends don't understand what's happening. What's worse is that the public fails to understand. First, because very little of the truth has been reported to the public in the "Gersten Case," and when the truth is hidden, lies prevail and the public's judgment becomes a conclusion based on false premises.

During my reflections, I came to realize how difficult it is for a community to lose faith in a free press, upon which we depend to learn the truth and perceive reality. Only those who have lived in totalitarian systems understand how a single news source can control society, by manipulating public opinion.

Second, during my reflections, I came to realize that it is even more difficult and too painful for a community to lose faith in its justice system -- those same law enforcement agencies that exist to protect our rights, to defend the innocent and the victims, and to remove from our streets the criminals that endanger our lives and property. For any of us to believe that our justice system can incarcerate a victim and let criminals go free is just too much to ask of human nature, of ourselves.

So secure in our very being are these two sanctuaries of our democratic way of life, that it's quite natural that we tend to believe as true and find it difficult to question if what our press tells us is the truth and everything our justice system does is right.

So sacred do I consider democratic institutions that I can ask you only to read the next few lines and then draw your own conclusions. I believe that the truth is what is, not what you are told it is. The ultimate judgment of the "Gersten Case" lies with you, The People.

First, allow me to make an important clarification regarding what you have been told to believe is the truth. At the request of the State Attorney's Office a judge determined that I am in contempt of court, for not having responded to questions the state says are related to the theft of my car. Under any scenario, theirs or mine, I am the victim of a crime. Prosecutors claim they need my testimony in order to charge the thieves with the crime.

False. On Wednesday, March 17, 1993, under oath, I responded to the questions directed to me by Assistant State Attorney Michael Band, regarding the theft of my car. These are all the questions any prosecutor needs answered by the victim of the crime of a car theft. I respectfully declined to answer two legal pads full of other questions on the advice of my attorney. The questions I did answer were: 1) the description of my car, 2) that I never authorized the people found in my car to use it, and 3) I filed a police report regarding the car theft. This is part of the public record and was recorded by a court reporter. You haven't been told what questions I did answer, only that I did not answer state attorney questions. Frankly, what I ate for breakfast and with whom is not relevant.

During the court proceedings Judge Amy Dean, in open court, before ordering me jailed for contempt, said: "This man is not accused of anything, he is not even a defendant in this case, but he got himself into this problem when he reported his car stolen" (March 17, 1993).

Little wonder that I have told the prosecutors and judge that I no longer want to press charges in this case. The judge said that it wasn't my choice, but rather the prerogative of the prosecutor; that the decision to prosecute or not prosecute any case lies solely within the discretion of the State Attorney's Office.

True. But then please consider the following facts, actual statistics taken from the records of the State Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles and the State Attorney's Office. These statistics were presented to Judge Amy Dean. During the last year, over 35,000 auto theft cases were reported to the Office of the State Attorney. Only a fraction of these cases were taken to court. I'm sure that many victims and/or witnesses opted not to press charges. How many victims were forced to testify by subpoena, under oath, by the prosecutor or face jail? None. Not even one out of 35,000. More interestingly, over the past 37 years and hundreds of thousands of car thefts later, not one, not in even one car theft case, was the victim forced to testify or go to jail. And more significant than car theft cases, in more serious crimes such as assault, battery, robbery, etc., victims are not forced to testify or go to jail.

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