Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
Where justice is a game.
Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties
Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise.
by Bob Dylan
Congratulations to California Superior Court Judge Hilary A. Chittick. She had the courage to smack down one of the toughest gangs in Fresno County. The leader of that gang, County District Attorney Elizabeth Egan, sent one of her soldiers into court to destroy the lives of 26–year-old Enrique Gonzalez and his friend Travis Gorman. For putting a grape-sized tattoo on the seven-year-old son of Gonzalez, Egan tried to send both of them to prison for the rest of their lives. Justice? Don’t expect justice from a gang shot-caller.
You may be confused because the county District Attorney in stories like this is not usually labeled the head of a gang. But in this case, Egan leads a gang every bit as nasty and immoral as the local Fresno street gang that calls itself “Bulldogs.” If we can believe the local police, Gonzalez and Gorman are members of the Bulldogs. And what Judge Chittick faced was nothing less than one small battle between the Bulldogs and the district attorney office gang run by Egan. But this time Egan overreached, and her soldier, prosecutor William Lacy left the courtroom with his tail between his legs, too embarrassed to even say anything. “Prosecutor William Lacy declined to comment as he left the courtroom,” is how all the news stories carried it.
I’ve heard this story a thousand times from prisoners, and the injustice of it is repugnant. Here’s how I believe this story unfolded. Gonzalez, who appears to be estranged from his child’s mother, was hanging around with his seven-year-old son one day. That’s what a father should be doing. Wanting to be just like his dad, the son said he wanted a tattoo; father Gonzalez has lots of tattoos. Gorman applies tattoos, although he is not licensed to do so, and judging from his work, he is also not very good at it. So Gonzalez made the mistake of having his friend Gorman tattoo his son. His second mistake was to have the tattoo apparently look like the Bulldog gang logo – a dog paw print. Again, Gorman’s work is pretty poor so this is a matter of interpretation.
Most of us are disgusted by Gonzalez giving his seven-year-old son a gang tattoo. It’s a stupid thing to do. But being in a street gang is perhaps the most stupid thing any human can do to begin with so Gonzalez already doesn’t exhibit the best judgment. But, he is a father, and he has a son who looks up to him and needs him. As the story continues, next the boy’s mom sees the tattoo and calls the cops. They take Gonzalez and Gorman to jail. The police tell the District Attorney that Gonzalez and Gorman belong to the Bulldogs street gang. Egan and her gang decide she can protect the public by putting these guys in prison for a long time. Never mind that the act of tattooing a minor is a misdemeanor offense that might get you up to six months in county jail. In the Egan gang, justice is decided solely by her.
The prosecutor offers Gorman and Gonzalez a deal. (This is where I’m speculating based on what I know usually happens.) They can plead out (admit guilt) and take a 10 or 15 year sentence or else they will go to trial on a charge of aggravated mayhem, not simple mayhem, but aggravated mayhem and face life in prison. Most defendants in these situations are so scared of the possible consequences they take the deal. They know if they go into a courtroom, they will be labeled vicious street gang members and career criminals. The jury will see their tattoos and intimidating demeanor, and they’ll end up as lifers on a maximum security yard of some state prison. And the public defenders, known as “public pretenders” by prisoners, almost always advise taking the deal; they have heavy caseloads and they don’t need the aggravation of a trial taking up a lot of their time.
This story however took a different turn from the normal “take the deal” case. It didn’t go quite the way the Egan gang had it mapped out. Either Gonzalez and Gorman had some rare good sense or they had public defenders who recognized Egan had gone too far, and they advised the defendants to challenge the outrageous charge. Gonzalez and Gorman went to court, and they challenged the charge. Judge Chittick, after appropriate political maneuvering, (She took a few days to “think” about it.) told Egan to take a hike. The aggravated mayhem charge was dismissed. That took a lot of courage. That’s what a judge is supposed to have, few of them actually do. Chittick did what a good Judge is supposed to do, and she prevented one more terrible injustice that puts so many people in prison in this state.
Imagine yourself in a prison cell. Your new cellmate asks why you’re in prison. You tell him you allowed your seven-year-old son to have a tattoo, so now you’re doing life. After he finishes laughing, you’re cellmate then says, “Seriously, man, what you in for?” Even in prison they wouldn’t believe it. Maybe that has something to do with why California prisons are overstuffed like the Thanksgiving turkey at a fat man’s house!
I haven’t read anything that mentions father Gonzalez having a father or what part he played in his son’s life. Experience suggests his father is probably a gang member and in prison. I hope not, but it’s more often than not the case. What kind of upbringing did Gonzalez have? Did anyone teach him to be a father? This is a case where the criminal justice system could have done some actual good. Gonzalez should have been convicted of the misdemeanor tattooing charge and then sentenced to a good parenting class that fulfills the parenting education requirements of the California Welfare and Institution code. An additional touch would have been some well supervised community service in a place doing child care. That would have given him much-needed parenting education and just as importantly, kept him as a father in his son’s life instead creating one more child with a father in prison.
Egan, on the other hand, would do well to spend a little time in prison — as a prisoner; it would teach her something about the real meaning of justice.