For dozens of inmates, Miami-Dade County jail has become a permanent home
Chazre Davis, inmate number 00000236, is a husky 41-year-old with a Mohawk that sprouts from his skull like a potted shrub. He sleeps next to a stainless-steel sink inside private cell number 503 at the Miami-Dade County Pre-Trial Detention Center. On Saturdays, he munches Salisbury steak for dinner, lifts weights, and is allowed to rendezvous with visitors.
Davis is accused of suffocating his girlfriend to death with a pillow and is awaiting trial. Problem is, he's been locked in county jail — which is supposed to be temporary — for more than a decade.
The length of Davis's stay surprises even those who pore through the reams of numbers. Told about the case, Thomas Cohen, a Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) employee who has spent years compiling pretrial data, simply says, "Wow. Ten years is a long, long time."
Miami-Dade County Pre-Trial Detention Center
Our man in the red jumpsuit isn't alone. There are eight others who have spent more than ten years behind bars waiting for a verdict. One of them has been there 12 years with an open case. In fact, more than 60 inmates — ranging from alleged burglars to coke dealers — have spent at least five years in county jail. By contrast, only three Broward County inmates have been housed for more than five years. And most national felony cases take less than a year to adjudicate, according to BJS studies.
And it's expensive. Miami-Dade has spent more than $4 million over the past decade to house the eight longest-staying inmates. In the past ten years, taxpayers have forked over $529,000 to keep Davis behind bars — nearly three times what it would cost the state if he were convicted and sent to prison. At $145 a day, his housing costs more than renting a posh one-bedroom, bay-view condo on the 41st floor of Icon Brickell in downtown Miami.
For the guilty, prolonging local jail time is a cushy alternative to state prison, where inmates sleep in 100-bed dorm rooms, eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches instead of steak, and report more instances of rape. For the innocent awaiting trial, it's an endless purgatory between freedom and state incarceration.
While overworked attorneys, lenient judges, and mentally incompetent defendants are often blamed for clogging the jails, Davis's story raises questions about a system that functions like an old bicycle: It works — just much too slowly.
"What the public sees is a crowded jail, and they don't understand why," says the county corrections director, Timothy Ryan.
Defense attorneys cite unique circumstances: jam-packed courts, retrials, complicated cases. Explains Coral Gables-based lawyer Eugene Zenobi: "It's one of those things you really can't control."
Prosecutors, who tend to benefit from speedy litigation, have another explanation: Judges here offer little incentive to go to trial.
"If you're guilty as sin and you can get continuances, why hurry?" says State Attorney's Office spokesperson Ed Griffith. "County jail is easier time than state prison."
Davis's lawyers, for example, have been granted eight continuances. Delays in his case were caused by everything from "unavailable attorney[s]" to out-of-town witnesses.
Other delayed cases are due to the state discovery rules, which allow defense attorneys to spend years taking depositions. For Tavares Calloway, it took seven years to complete discovery and two years for an appeals court to overturn his case. He has spent 11 and a half years in county jail.
In January 1997, according to police, Calloway stormed a rundown Liberty City apartment as five small-time drug dealers divvied the earnings of the day. He and a partner hogtied the men, duct-taped their mouths, and shot them execution-style in the head. Calloway was finally convicted in July. (He's still at Metro West Detention Center awaiting sentencing.)
"Sometimes it's to a defense attorney's benefit to delay a trial," Ryan says.
Inmates, too, prefer local jails, where relatives can more easily visit, to prisons up north, where they are required to work.
Mentally incompetent detainees are also a problem. Take the case of a lanky 29-year-old named Patrick Michel. His story shows the perils of using jails as a substitute for mental health clinics.
In December 1998, a teenage Michel allegedly shot a tourist from South Carolina in front of Bernice's Grocery Store on NW 24th Street. After he was arrested in February 1999, physiologists discovered he suffered from delusions, had "suicidal thoughts," and was incapable of "abstract reasoning," according to court documents. One psychologist testified Michel had an IQ of 55, well below the benchmark for retardation. Today, Michel has been in the county jail system 11 years at a cost of about $540,000. (He pleaded guilty last week.)
Joseph Toomer — Miami-Dade's longest-staying inmate — has also had mental health problems, according to court documents. He was arrested in February 1998 after allegedly shooting a 34-year-old Lebanese grocer at Community Discount Food Store in Little River. His attorney, Rafael Rodriguez, would say only that his lengthy jail time was due to "a unique confluence of circumstances."
But not all of these inmates are incompetent. LaTravis Gallashaw is bright — even charismatic. His case, however, has dragged for 11 years simply because it's so complex. It includes eight codefendants, 300 witnesses, 18 defense attorneys, and multiple death penalties.
Gallashaw was allegedly second in command of a gang called the John Does — named for the toe tags of their victims — which terrorized the streets of Liberty City in the late '90s. In July 1998, he learned a drug pusher named Marlon Beneby was selling his own stash on the side, according to court documents. Gallashaw confronted the dealer outside a housing project around the corner from Liberty Square. As Beneby walked away, Gallashaw "shot him in the back," police reports say.
Chazre Davis — the husky inmate who sleeps in a private cell — was also a member of the John Does. His case began in July 1997, when a chambermaid knocked on the door of Room 24 at the Trade Winds Motel in Little Havana. She found a 32-year-old Liberty City mother of three named Cynthia Brown — Davis's longtime girlfriend — on the bed. The maid shook her, but she wouldn't wake up.
Cops soon learned Brown — the only witness to a bloody shooting — had been murdered. The reason: She was set to testify against the leader of the John Does. The case went cold for three years, until cops arrested Davis in 2000. According to the police report, he "provided [Brown] narcotics and alcohol in order to disable her" and then "smothered her with a pillow" in exchange for $10,000.
Eight boxes of court files, seven attorneys, and dozens of depositions later, he still hasn't had his day in court. His lawyer unsuccessfully argued last year that the case should be dropped because Davis was denied the right to a speedy trial.
Rumpole, an attorney who writes under a pseudonym for the Miami-based Justice Building Blog, says he has never seen a person wait so long for a trial. "At ten years, there are either extraordinary circumstances or bad judges and bad lawyers."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.