|Joaquin Rodriguez, photo courtesy of WVTF|
Joaquin Rodriguez came to this country from El Salvador when he was fifteen. He was excited to be in a place that offered freedom and opportunity, but three years later his American dream turned into a nightmare, when he was arrested and charged with three counts of armed robbery in Fairfax and Arlington, possession of a firearm and malicious wounding.
“They had no evidence, no witness, no fingerprints, no videos, so I thought they would never convict me of anything.”
What they did have was witnesses who identified him in a line-up. The Innocence Project reports witness error is the single biggest cause of wrongful conviction.
“They took me to a line up, and I was the only person that fitted the descriptions that the victim gave to police and investigators. I was the only 18-year-old kid, Hispanic, my height and everything. Everybody else -- they were older men, they were police officers.”
The prosecutor tried to make a deal – one that would mean as little as ten years behind bars, but Rodriguez insisted he was innocent, and he had two lawyers to help him in court.
“Both of them had just finished law school. They were committing lots of mistakes. Even the judge would tell them, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ Already told you about this. They were very inexperienced, and you can’t expect much from them.”
In the end, he got a sentence of 108 years – in part because Virginia imposes longer terms each time someone is convicted of a violent crime. Here’s former U.S. attorney Tim Heaphy:
“A residential burglary was classified by the general assembly as a violent crime. If you had a burglary conviction, then that triggers these enhancement of sentences for subsequent offenses.”
Virginia also has a “three strikes” law – intended to discourage criminals from committing new crimes once released from prison. Under that law, someone who’s convicted of three felonies is ineligible for parole. Experts say “three strikes” laws have not prevented people from committing new crimes, but they have increased prison populations and costs dramatically, and they’re unevenly applied. Rodriguez, for example, had never served time in prison before being locked up for all three felonies, and he was actually considered for parole several times before being told he was not eligible. Now, he has little hope of release.
“I’m pretty much growing old. I send clemency petitions to the governor every year, but I’m still here.”
The commission set up to consider reinstating parole was concerned about people like Rodriguez and has called on the state to review all cases involving inmates convicted of three felonies. The panel also recommended getting rid of mandatory minimum sentences, so judges have more flexibility in assessing each case.
- Sandy Hausman, WVTF
Here's the link to the entire series. Rodriguez's story is in part four: