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Longing for a Reprieve 

Luis dreams of a glimpse of freedom. But first he must deal with nightmares.

Thursday, Sep 16 2004
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Photos by Anne Fishbein

After six months behind bars, Luis Aguilar is desperate to bail himself out. “Frances and the kids need me,” he says. He needs them too, of course. The combined touchstones of wife, kids and job have a distinctly beneficial effect on his psyche. Without them, his sense of himself as a decent man for whom a happy, productive future is possible slips away. “In here, you start to see yourself as a criminal, even if you’re not,” he says.

This undertow of pessimism sometimes reflects itself in nightmares. “Like in one dream,” Luis says, “I’d be standing in front of my house, and all of a sudden I’m shot.” In another, he is trapped in an open coffin. Luis tries to keep the dreams and the dread at bay by working out obsessively — doing push-ups, sit-ups and crunches to the point of exhaustion. He fills the rest of the long unoccupied hours by reading the Bible or any nonfiction books that happen to drift his direction, and by poring incessantly over copies of his court transcripts and the police documents pertaining to his case, searching for any shred of inconsistency that might help prove his innocence.

Luis’ attorney, Mark Overland, thinks Luis ought to wait about the bail. The trial will probably begin near the end of August, says Overland, so why waste the money? But Luis wants to bail out now precisely because his trial may be imminent. “If things don’t go my way, at least me and Frances and the kids will have some time together,” he says. “At least we’ll have something.”

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This is part of a yearlong series focusing on the Aguilar family — Luis, Frances and their children — of East Los Angeles. In Chapter 4, money got so tight Frances had to borrow from friends, the children faced problems at school, and Luis grew impatient with lack of progress on his drug case.

Right now, Luis’ bail is $125,000. A bail bondsman will require 10 percent, or $12,500 — too much for him to realistically expect to beg or borrow. At Luis’ request, Overland has scheduled a hearing to ask for a lower bail of $10,000. “I don’t anticipate I’ll get it,” he says. But he is optimistic the judge will settle for something in between — say, $50,000, bringing the bond fee more within range.

Judge Anita Dymant, a congenial-looking jurist who could easily be mistaken for a fifth-grade teacher, listens impassively as Overland makes his pitch. “This man has six children and a wife who need his support,” he says. “He’s a homeowner and — I don’t usually say this kind of thing — but I believe this is a case where a conviction is very unlikely. We have character evidence with regard to Officer Chavez’s untruthfulness. In other words,” concludes Overland, “this case will go to trial. And there is no likelihood whatsoever that Mr. Aguilar will not appear. None. This is a man who wants to clear his name.”

Overland has asked Cheryl Mitchell, Luis’ employment supervisor, to come to court too. When the judge invites her to step forward, she speaks with a maternal ferocity. “This gentleman was working 10-and-a-half-hour days on a $250 million sewer project up until the time of his arrest,” she says. “We consider him a high-priority worker with our program. He is guaranteed a job with us the minute he gets out. Guaranteed.”

The prosecutor, Lew Parise, is a 30-something guy with dapper hair and a low-key, reasonably affable demeanor. Parise objects vigorously to any drop in bail — although, strictly on the face of it, Luis’ present charges are neither violent nor serious, the main charge involving the alleged sale of $10 worth of rock cocaine on a single occasion. Nevertheless, Parise trots out a laundry list of past negatives — gang member, violent felon, parole violator, plus an instance 10 years ago when Luis was briefly arrested, then later released. In the end, Judge Dymant pretty much goes with Parise. She will drop the bail to $100,000, but no lower, considering the defendant’s record, she says. This means Luis now needs to come up with $10,000, an amount that still seems all but impossible, especially since, even if he is acquitted, the fee is entirely non-refundable.

As everyone files out of the courtroom after the judge’s decision, Overland shakes his head with frustration, while Frances is stoic. Luis’ mother, Maria — who walks with a cane due to childhood polio and, like Frances, has attended every court date — now limps quickly down the hallway, away from the others, crying quietly.

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