Black teenager targeted, right to speedy trial denied
On June 18, 2000 Vincent Debose, then 16, was arrested on a charge of armed robbery and his mother, Catherine Johnson, began a struggle to prove his innocence and free him to pursue his education.
Now, at age 18, acquitted of the robbery charge and a high school graduate, he was allowed to leave the county May 4 for an interview at Dade County Community College. His goal is a degree in architecture. He has also been invited to an interview at New York Institute of Technology.
However, he still waits trial on a string of charges connected with the robbery charge of which he was acquitted June 26, 2001. Exhausted by over two years of fighting the system, Johnson will meet next week with an Orlando attorney to file a civil suit against the county for false imprisonment.
NAACP President Michael Bowie will accompany her. She said she has been unable to find a Gainesville attorney to take a civil case. Bowie also will accompany Debose to a case management hearing scheduled for June 10.
The many hurdles she has encountered have convinced Johnson that this is another case of a youth charged with a crime because he fits a black profile and was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"In the June 25 hearing on the grand theft charge, Judge Larry Turner said he had heard no evidence to prove that Vincent was guilty of the crime," Johnson said. "The prosecutor replied that when the police found Vincent, he was breathing heavily as if he had been running. The judge dismissed the charge for lack of evidence."
She had to get a court order to have schoolbooks and assignments brought to Debose, despite his right to continue his education in jail.
It was a full year before he saw a judge, despite his constitutional right to a speedy trial. By that time the original charge had multiplied to robbery with firearm, grand theft, grand theft auto, and possession of a firearm as concealed weapon. Court records show these charges were filed July 7, 2000.
Court records also show the addition of other charges filed Nov. 22, 2000. These included two counts of burglary of a conveyance, grand theft of a firearm, and grand theft III.
All of the charges above are still listed as pending, despite the fact that on June 26, 2001 he was acquitted of robbery with a firearm.
One count of grand theft was dismissed on June 25, 2001. The prosecutor declined to pursue the charges of possession of a firearm and concealed weapon on June 22, 2001.
Although cleared of those charges, Debose remains on 'pre-trial release.'
After leaving jail, he continued his studies at the Loften Center and had completed the courses required for a high school graduation diploma by the end of April.
Several calls to State Prosecutor Andrea Muirhead for an explanation of the pending charges were unanswered. Debose says a friend had dropped him off near Country Village on Archer Road after a late ride that night of June 18, 2000. He says he asked to get out of the car when the friend, Thedrice Lewis, proposed a robbery. He said he was standing near the entrance of Country Village, where another friend lived, when people began running and several police cars passed him.
A few minutes later the police returned, put him on the ground, handcuffed him and put him in their car. Several hours later, Debose said, the police returned with Lewis, put him in the car and drove both to the county jail for lengthy interrogations. Lewis later agreed to a plea bargain on the robbery charge and is now serving time in prison.
Debose maintained his innocence. He said he was threatened with more charges unless he gave officers names of people involved in the robbery of a Sheraton motel on Archer Road.
"They interrogated me for several hours," Debose said. "Detective Jorge Campos told me it would go easier on me if I would tell them somebody who was involved in the robbery. They never read me my Miranda rights and never let me call a lawyer or my parents. They finally took me to the detention center."
Johnson got the news of her son's arrest from police who showed up at the door of her home to search the house for a gun. She refused to believe Vincent had taken part in the robbery.
"He was such a good student," she said. "He was in the business administration program at Eastside High School in the daytime and at Loften High School at night in the dual enrollment program. Education is very important in our family. My husband has a master's degree in business administration and works for an Ocala firm. And I take college classes."
Johnson has done the work of a professional detective in documenting every detail of her son's case. She said she has contacted everyone from local police to the governor to state legislators and Florida's congress people. This has made her unpopular with officials, she said, and she has been stalked and received threatening late night phone calls.
An occupational therapist at Shands Hospital, she has taken a job in a school in another county to avoid what she believes is police harassment.
When the public defender assigned to the Debose case failed to move the case to trial after many months, Johnson began working 10-hour days on weekends at Shands to pay for a private attorney, Stephen Bernstein. He got court action on the three charges now closed. Debose says at that time he waived his right to speedy trial on the other charges.
But Jan. 31, 2002 another problem appeared, which Johnson also sees as further harassment. Pre-trial rules call for frequent appearances at Court Services early in the morning. Debose, who stays with a family friend since Johnson's job move, had difficulty meeting appointments on time by bus. Johnson bought a used truck, so much in need of repair that it was not drivable, and had it towed to the friend's house. Someone reported Debose as driving a stolen vehicle.
Sheriff's deputies appeared, handcuffed the youth, and took him to jail. The mother was notified and appeared at the jail with a bill of sale and he was released. But in the meantime, deputies searched Debose' room at the friend's house and took a television set, two computers and other furniture to be held while they checked it as possibly stolen equipment. The friend (who asked not to be named) said all of the pieces belonged either to her son, or Vincent, or his mother.
At presstime, over three months since the incident, the seized goods are still retained by Alachua County sheriff's officers.
Another complication: an arrest is a violation of Pre-trial rules and the charge of grand theft auto now appears in the court records. Muirhead scheduled a just cause hearing on March 13 and asked that Debose be sent back to jail. When assured by a probation officer that Debose was meeting the conditions of his Pre-trial Release and told that the mother had purchased the truck, the judge saw no reason for Debose to return to jail. He was represented at that hearing by attorney Ray Washington.
Muirhead had subpoenaed the man who sold the truck to the mother, but he arrived late and she told him to appear at her office the next morning. He did not show at that time and the grand theft auto charge is still on the books.
Also, Debose paid a penalty for the last arrest. He had worked his way up to Level 1 of the Pre-trial order, which is less restrictive. He was put back on Level 3 with more restrictions, but by early May was back on Level 1. Signing in twice a week has freed him to take day labor jobs.
He has been told another case management hearing will be held in June, but the trial date for the remaining charges has yet to be set.
A letter to the editor of the Gainesville Sun, written by Dr. Bart Weitz, eminent scholar professor at UF Warrington College of Business Administration, raises questions heard frequently in recent times. "As an upper-middle class white person, I am appalled at how the judicial system has failed Vincent. Twelve months in jail awaiting trial and then the case was dismissed by the judge because of a lack of evidence. At the time of his arrest, Vincent was a good student about to take courses at Santa Fe while finishing his senior year at Eastside. "At one point during his year in jail, the public defender suggested he plea bargain his case and take a ten-year jail sentence. She eventually resigned from the case....I realize stuff like this happens all the time. But it is distressing to realize that if Vincent were white, from a middle class family, and could have hired a reasonable attorney, he would not have spent a day in jail, and the case probably would never have been brought to trial."
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