Ramon Vasquez was confused. It was 2008 and he was sitting in an interrogation room where two San Jose police officers were asking him about a murder he hadn't committed in a parking lot he hadn't been in. Hours earlier, he'd been at work, making Coca-Cola deliveries just like he had been doing for the past eight years. He had two small children and a longterm girlfriend at home and had only been in police custody once before, when he was 21 and got picked up for a DUI.
But that was years ago, a youthful mistake. Now he was almost 30. This was murder.
Just a few weeks before his arrest, two groups of young men had gotten in a fight late one night in a parking lot shared by an In-N-Out and Panda Express. One pulled a gun. Another man was shot and later died at a local hospital. The assailant was a Latino man with a tattoo on his neck who had gotten away in a white Dodge Charger with chrome rims. Vasquez was a Latino man with a tattoo on his neck who also drove a white Dodge Charger, but with black rims, but that was a small detail to consider for investigators to consider when the rest seemed to add up. When police searched a database of registered owners of white Dodge Chargers in the area, the mugshot from Vasquez's DUI popped up. He looked similar enough to the assailant that it could have been him, witnesses said. So a group of police officers met him outside of his job that Thursday afternoon and made the arrest.
"It was like one of those bad dreams that you have when there's a room full of people that you know and you're screaming at the top of your lungs and nobody can hear you," Vasquez told Mic. "It was like living that dream every day."
He didn't go home for five months.
Like 80% of people who are charged with felony crimes, Vasquez couldn't afford a private attorney. So he left his fate up to the Santa Clara County public defender's office. But that office, like every other public defender's office in the country, is understaffed and overburdened: there are only 124 attorneys for more than 37,000 clients each year, J.J. Knapp, an assistant public defender at the Santa Clara County public defender's office, told Mic.
What Vasquez didn't count on then, and what he now credits with the district attorney's decision to drop the charges against him for lack of evidence, is the small army of untrained and unpaid volunteers who could hear him and worked tirelessly on his case every week for the eight months between his arrest and his release from jail. Those allies used something that's been dubbed "participatory defense," a method that brings a community organizing ethos — for a community made up of the working class families who most often come into contact with the criminal justice system — to the individual court cases. It uses a community's knowledge of local laws and the people who are impacted by them to, in many instances, complement the work of defense attorneys and lessen the blow of the criminal justice system. That means finding witnesses, emailing attorneys, finding details in police or investigative reports, tracking down witnesses and then pooling that information together at weekly meetings in which several different cases are discussed at once, or making intimate videos and slideshows to help demonstrate a loved one's humanity at sentencing. So far, the method has been used for nearly nine years in Santa Clara County, and its fiercest supporters say that it's saved people more than 1,862 years in prisons and jails. Now, it's set to spread to at least half a dozen new cities and, according to some legal experts, could revolutionize the criminal justice system from its most important staging ground: the court room.
"We understood the power of collective action to challenge institutions. But the irony was that we would relinquish that power when it came to the court process," Raj Jayadev, organizer with the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project
The year before Vasquez was picked up for murder, a local community group called Silicon Valley De-Bug began meeting weekly to discuss a sudden spike in ticketing in the city's downtown. De-Bug's members are largely young, working class and of color — not usually the people associated with the hordes of monied tech workers who have flooded the region in recent years. Many of its members rocked baggy jeans, snapbacks and, according to their suspicions, the wrong color skin, which made them "undesirable" in the eyes of the city's elite, who were busy trying to court developers and start-ups.
"They wanted this sort of upscale cosmopolitan perception of the city, and so basically young people of color [were] not who they wanted Friday, Saturday night downtown," Raj Jayadev, an organizer with Silicon Valley De-Bug's Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project, which now hosts weekly participatory defense meetings.
The group's members were being ticketed for being drunk in public, even though some said they hadn't had a sip of alcohol. "People don't want certain people downtown in San Jose and they know that this is the charge that they can lay on people that has pretty flimsy probable cause standards."
Jayadev and other organizers began meeting with members and comparing notes. They discovered that San Jose police were ticketing people for that particular offense at a rate much higher than other cities of comparable size. Those arrests were also racially disproportionate. They began protesting downtown and became part of a task force aimed at curbing such arrests. Less than a year later, those arrest rates dropped by 46%.
For those involved, the process was more important than the outcome. As a community group, they knew how to bring attention to an issue. But in order to successfully impact it, they knew they had to do more. "We were that group that would be protesting and holding a press conference and stuff like that," Jayadev told Mic. "We understood the power of collective action to challenge institutions. But the irony was that we would relinquish that power when it came to the court process."
The community meetings, which were born out of necessity, continued even after the drunk-in-public arrests dropped. News spread by word of mouth: If you, or a cousin, or an uncle, somehow caught a case, go to De-Bug. That's how Vasquez's partner, Yvonne, began going. A family member told her about a friend who'd benefited from participatory defense, described the weekly Sunday meetings, and told her to stop by. She and other members of Vasquez's family started going to the meetings every week, updating the group on Vasquez's case and getting advice on next steps. They reviewed the discovery packet and pointed out inconsistencies in the police report, found receipts that proved Vasquez wasn't at the scene of the crime at the time of the murder, made a list of the top reasons why he was innocent and pushed for a polygraph test, all of which was used by the attorney to speak to the prosecutor and eventually drop the charges.
"There's nothing that I can do to repay my wife, Raj, and the rest of the folks at De-Bug," Vasquez said. "Everything was free, all the advice they gave my family while I was in there."
Participatory defense is a relatively new name for the very old concept of good lawyering. "Many of us in this office have been practicing participatory defense for 25 years [without calling it that]," said Knapp, the public defender in Santa Clara County. "It's like any person in crisis, if they have family members or people who care about them, it's kind of a team effort to get out of that crisis."
Jayadev agrees that his group is using a recycled approach. "What this is is the naming of an instinct that already exists in communities. We're just trying to fan the flame for it to become an actual practice," he said.
Naming it also has the added benefit of allowing people to recognize their own agency. "We're telling people all the time like, 'Look, you can do this. Instead of dealing with incarceration after it happens, here's a way to engage to stop it,'" Jayadev said. "People will kind of look at us and say, 'Okay, that's just something that De-Bug does.' But once we gave it a name, it became much more tangible to people." In Jayadev's eyes, his team is trying to "grow something from an instinct into an actual craft."
"I think I showed [my son] how to be a strong person in the face of adversity," Gail Noble, mother and participatory defense organizer
It's a craft that's also worked for other families. Gail Noble, a mother of seven, began going to De-Bug meetings after her teenage son Karim was arrested and charged with felony assault in 2007. Though she suspected racial bias played a role in her son's prosecution and lackluster defense — and was even told by her public defender that a judge had quipped that her son's summer job of collecting signatures for an Indian gaming project was actually a ruse for selling drugs door-to-door — she didn't know what to do about it. Then, at one De-Bug meeting, she learned about filing a Marsden motion, which is the only way a defendant can fire a court-appointed attorney. Though her son did still spend time in youth detention, the case galvanized his family. His story was featured in San Jose's metro weekly, and Noble is now a participatory defense organizer who helps other families through the process she went through with him.
"I think I showed [my son] how to be a strong person in the face of adversity," Noble told Mic.
For roughly the past year, members of De-Bug have been traveling the country giving trainings on participatory defense. Weekly meetings are now being held in cities as diverse as Birmingham, Alabama; Lexington, Kentucky; and Montgomery, Pennsylvania. Next year, there are plans to start meetings in Memphis, Baltimore, Durham and Seattle. Jeff Sherr, a public defender in Kentucky who also works with the National Association of Public Defense, describes the court system as "very isolating" and hopes that participatory defense can help change that reality.
"In most instances, the person who's accused of the crime is by themselves or has family members who are very out of the loop about what's going on, and have limited chances to share information," he said. Participatory defense "gives this opportunity for the community to see what's going on in court and then to participate on individual cases."
For legal experts, that potential is crucial. Janet Moore, a former criminal defense attorney who specialized in capital murder cases and now teaches law the University of Cincinnati, says that participatory defense shifts criminal justice agency in key ways. " If this thing turns out to be sustainable," Moore told Mic about participatory defense, "there really is promise that the law can improve substantively ... also because this will be a non-elite driven change, which is relatively new in the context of constitutional criminal procedure."
In Vasquez's case, the power of public defense literally spared him his life. He was able to get his job back at Coca-Cola, and now busies himself with parenting duties. He ultimately sued the city of San Jose, but lost because the police department successfully argued that they had probable cause to arrest and charge him. But he credits his freedom not to their investigative savvy, but to the commitment of his loved ones — and people he didn't know at all.
"I think that the justice system — meaning the DA and my own court-appointed attorney — knew that eyes and ears were on them, and that's what got the ball rolling a lot faster," Vasquez said. "I was able to draw strength from knowing that there were people outside fighting for me."