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.

This is one important reason why my attorney told me the prosecutors were creating a "trap" for me and were "selectively prosecuting me," and that the State Attorney had a "conflict of interest" in this case. Why? Because you don't need two legal pads full of questions to find out who owns a car and who had permission to use it. Because they are treating me differently from any other victim of a car theft in the history of Dade County. And because the present state attorney who was formerly the Chief Assistant State Attorney, Katherine Rundel, is publicly supporting my opponent in the current County Commission elections. Just read my opponent's campaign literature, her name is on it. Selective prosecution is unconstitutional and unfair, it's discriminatory even against real criminals. But it's un-American when used for political purposes against a victim of crime.

Remember, Assistant State Attorney Michael Band claims that he needs to ask me hundreds of other questions in order to discharge his responsibility of prosecuting the car thieves. The volumes of questions he wants to ask me speaks volumes about the real motives of the State Attorney's Office.

Please consider another "truth," for comparison purposes. The prosecutor made a plea bargain with the drug-addicted prostitute and her career criminal boyfriend that allege that I spent a fun-filled evening with them. The prostitute, Claudia Lira, recently confessed to the crime of kidnapping and armed robbery and received, for these life-in-prison crimes, two years probation. The boyfriend got eight years, instead of life, for the same kidnapping and robbery and his lawyer publicly bragged to the media about what a great deal he got. Also remember, this is the same criminal who offered to sell my attorney his testimony for $10,000.

What you are asked to believe is that prosecutors need to charge these two career criminals with auto theft in order to put them away, in order to serve justice; please let me emphasize again, they had both in custody for kidnapping and armed robbery and they let one free on probation, and plea-bargained a much reduced sentence for the other. These convicted, violent career criminals pose a threat to our community, but they got the deal-of-a-lifetime from the prosecutor for their latest violent crime. What kind of sentence do you expect me to believe they would get for the heinous, uspeakable crime of car theft?

Now, think about this. Hypothetically, if I did do everything these drug-addicted, violent career criminals said I did, and remember, I said if (please remember all the evidence has exonerated me: the FBI drug test, fingerprint tests, offers to sell testimony), look at what would happen to me. Since I have no criminal record in my entire life, the first offense for soliciting prostitution would be a safe-sex course. The first offense for drug use would be a drug program. That's it!

The justice system should not be manipulated to harass or to "trap" people, but to enforce the law and mete out justice, protect society, and punish criminals. If state prosecutors have enough to charge and convict me, why haven't they done so? Because they don't. But they have mislead the public and prevented the media from asking the hard questions that should be asked of the State Attorney's Office. The question is "Why?" The personal humiliation, the destruction of my political and personal life, have not come cheap for Dade taxpayers. The price tag has escalated to a whopping $1.3 million and keeps growing. Yes, you read it right. At a time when Dade's crime rate is at critical proportions, and getting worse, our law enforcement dollars are being wasted on nothing more than a political vendetta by a vindictive and demagogic State Attorney's Office, aided and abetted by a media blinded by frenzy. I apologize to you, the taxpayers, but it's not me who owes you an explanation.

Look at what $1.3 million, wasted on persecuting the victim of a crime, could have been spent on: dozens more police officers to provide better protection to our families, our property, and our neighborhoods for a full year. Instead, it's been spent to jail Joe Gersten for 30 days for civil contempt? If you had the choice, what would you choose to do with your hard-earned tax dollars?

Let's tell it straight. No auto theft deserves this much attention and waste of our tax dollars. But politics is a very strong motivator. It has no limits when the power of the entire State Attorney's Office is aimed at one citizen. I ask you, The People, what's the real motive behind the "Gersten Case"?

If I would play their game and fall into their trap, you and Dade County will not be safer, but they are already $1.3 million poorer. And what would have been accomplished? The destruction of Joe Gersten. They may destroy me yet, but not with my help. But in reaching this goal, they also will erode the basic fabric of our justice system and begin to chip away at your confidence in it. This entire matter is a farce, perhaps funny to many. But in reality, it's a Greek tragedy with Lady Justice dying on the public stage. Here, in America.


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