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Saving Ricky Tovar (page 2)

Legally, he said, he could not show them the police report until the witness's name had been removed, and he refused to hand over any documents until a new attorney was assigned.)

Each Sunday, Salvador and Carolina would visit their son, and each time Salvador's feelings of powerlessness worsened. He noticed subtle changes in Ricky's manner - prison slang had worked its way into his speech, and he was holding his head differently, tilting it to the side to avoid direct eye contact. "I could see Ricky a slipping away from me," he says. "Right in front of my eyes."

Finally, on Wednesday, September 9, the second court date arrived. Again the group assembled early - Salvador, Carolina, Marcy, Robert, his girlfriend, a neighbor and Matt Spengler, one of Ricky's teachers - only to sit for hours in the long, dingy corridor. Every few minutes a man in a dark suit would emerge from a courtroom and call out a name. Sometimes someone would respond, stand up and make his way toward the open courtroom door. More often there was no response, and the man would try again, every 15 minutes or so, with no answer.

Hours went by. The Tovars' attorney did not appear, and the man did not call Ricky's name. A little girl who had wandered away from her mother picked up a dirty lollipop stick lying on the floor and stuck it in her mouth.

Shortly before noon, a man with silvery hair and glasses approached and introduced himself as Antonio Govea, their court-appointed attorney. He apologized for being late. Salvador and Carolina pulled out a fat folder and, standing in the courtroom hallway, began telling him about their son. "Let me show you what kind of a boy he is," Salvador said, slowly paging through the stack of certificates - awards for community leadership, punctuality, attendance, successful completion of the DARE program, and more. Then, "Let me show you what kind of parents he has." And Salvador opened two vinyl-covered booklets to reveal statements of U.S. citizenship for himself and Carolina.

Govea listened to the presentation. Later he would say that the Tovars took him by surprise. "Right away I could see that Salvador was very - " he pauses, restarts. "There's a certain sense about him, a weight and a seriousness." Govea went into the courtroom. Carolina crossed herself and bowed her head. Then she and Salvador followed. A few moments later, the courtroom door opened and Salvador and Carolina reappeared, blinking and swaying slightly as if emerging from a darkened theater. They stood outside the door, silent for a full minute. Then they leaned into each other and made their way the few steps to the hard bench. The family looked at Salvador expectantly. "I'm not sure what happened," he admitted finally. "He put his arm around Rick. At least he cares."

Govea reappeared. Grasping for control, Salvador asked to see the police report. Without pausing, Govea pulled the report from his files and began reading it aloud. As it turned out, the family already knew most of the content, but Govea's willingness to share the information put Salvador more at ease.

When Govea finished reading the report, he looked at the gathered family. "I need time to prepare the case," he said. The next court date was set, he told them, for October 2 - almost a month away. Because of the change in attorneys, the decision about whether Ricky would be tried as a juvenile or an adult would have to wait until then. In the meantime, Govea would try to get a live lineup for the witness.

Salvador slumped. Carolina shook her head in disbelief. Salvador began to talk about Ricky. He showed Govea his report card, told him Ricky had an alibi. Then the family launched into a detailed account of Ricky's whereabouts the day of the crime, and Govea perked up. "It's less than 1 percent where you would see that," Govea would say later. "Normally they can't account for the kid. They don't know where he was, and they don't have anybody reliable who knows where he was."

Govea promised to see what he could do, and turned to walk away. "What about school?" someone asked. It was Matt Spengler, coordinator of Jefferson's Early College Academy, a program Ricky was actively involved in. "This semester is crucial. It's the last one used for college admissions, and if Ricky isn't in school, it's really going to hurt his chances. Can't you get him out until the trial? He's got to go to school."

Govea paused. In all the hundreds of cases he had handled at Eastlake, he had never asked for the release of a juvenile charged with a violent felony. But Ricky seemed different. "There was nothing about him that appeared 'gang,'" Govea says now. "He didn't have the tattoos or the attitude." The crime, he says, "was the antithesis of Ricky's personality." He tapped his lip with his pen. "I'm going to talk to the D.A.," he told the Tovars. "Maybe we can get the judge to let him out. So he can go to school." He promised to call, and disappeared. The family was ecstatic. It was the first good news in a long time.

 

True to his word, Govea immediately found Deputy D.A. Margaret Lawrence. "I said, 'Marni, you know, there's a problem with this case. I truly believe it's a mistake.'" He did not go so far as to ask her to drop the charges, but he did request that she agree to a special hearing - one that every defendant is entitled to - in which the arresting officer must prove a connection between the person who was arrested and the crime.

Lawrence was skeptical. She pointed out that the judge had already denied attorney Barry Bernstein's request that Ricky be released to his parents. But Govea persisted, and she finally agreed. He handed her the folder of certificates, report cards and teacher testimonials, along with a typed minute-by-minute account of Ricky's whereabouts the day of the crime, which had been prepared by Robert's girlfriend. Lawrence said she would read the material, and scheduled a hearing for the following Monday.

That morning, the family arrived early yet again, to wait for hours in the hallway. They were tense, nervous, subdued. "Scary," Salvador said quietly. "Court dates are scary. Because you feel helpless. There's nothing you can do to move these people, to get 'em thinking your way. They're set in a certain route and that's the route they're gonna take and nothing can change it."

Hours later Govea arrived, apologizing for being late. But he had good news. Deputy D.A. Lawrence had completed her examination of the material he had given her and she, too, had begun to suspect that Ricky was innocent. The arresting officer had failed to show up for the hearing, and she still had a few more calls to make, but she'd probably be able to request Ricky's release to his parents' custody the following day.

The family had already walked outside the courthouse when Lawrence came running out, smiling at them for the first time. She had just talked with Detective Avila from Newton Station, and he told her of the conclusion he had reached weeks before.

Ricky is getting out today, she told the family. Not only would he be released to his parents, but the charge had been dropped, and he'd be out that afternoon. In addition, she promised to request, on Ricky's behalf, a "factual finding of innocence." She congratulated the family, then went back inside.

After 28 days in jail for a crime he did not commit, Ricky Tovar was free.

Carolina immediately broke down in tears. Marcy, also in tears, went to comfort her. Robert started hopping around, giddy. But Salvador stood stark still, fists clenched, jaw tight. At this moment more than any other, he was angry. He couldn't point a finger at anyone in particular, but he felt that his son had been the victim of some cruel caprice - driven not by malicious intent, but rather by the hardness of a system that would incarcerate an innocent child, then consider his release a cause for celebration. "Why?" he asked. "Why?"

Once it was all over, the district attorney and the police took credit for a job well done. "Margaret Lawrence is the hero in this case," declared Sandi Gibbons of the D.A.'s Office. "She got the case and looked at it, asked for further investigation, and then in her own mind decided that this was a good kid and that he did not do it." Gibbons also said that freeing an innocent person after a month in jail is "almost lightning speed," and that anyone who gets out so fast should count himself lucky.

Tony Ketelsleger, supervising detective at Newton Station, said the police did Ricky a favor by putting him in a photo lineup the night of his arrest. Legally, all they needed was a hunch. "They went one step beyond what they had to do to make this arrest," Ketelsleger said. He showed off the word Exonerated printed in black marker across the top of Ricky's file. "It's the best we can do for him," he said. "Unfortunately, it's also the least we can do for him."

But Ketelsleger refused to remove Ricky from the Newton Station gang file, where he is listed as a "gang associate" because he was arrested with a known gang member. Ricky will remain on that list for five years.

 

Ketelsleger did allow that Ricky's arrest was a "misfortune." But, he said, "people have a tendency to look like one another." He has children of his own. "If it was my kid, I'd be upset too. But robbery is a serious crime." The police say they've launched an internal investigation into Ricky's charge that he was beaten the night of his arrest. Ketelsleger refused to say whether the officer involved in the investigation has any prior record of abuse. It's "a personnel matter," he said, and therefore not open to public scrutiny.

Two days after Ricky came home, Salvador celebrated his 78th birthday. The whole family was there, as were many of Ricky's friends and several of his teachers. "This is the best gift I could ever wish for," Salvador said that day. "To live to see Ricky this far, to see my family here, closer than ever."

For Ricky, next to seeing his family, the biggest thrill was getting back to school. His friends gave him a warm welcome - Steve Bachrach held a party in his classroom, complete with sparkling cider. One teacher who spotted him in the hall stopped her class in midsentence and ran out to greet him. In recent senior-class elections, he was voted most popular, most outspoken and most likely to succeed. "I never knew so many people even cared," he says. "That was cool."

In class, though, Ricky was overwhelmed. "I felt lost," he says. "I really didn't know what they were doing." Sometimes he would doze off. Now, several weeks after his release, Ricky has recovered some of his confidence. He's outgoing in class and asks a lot of questions, but he's still struggling to catch up. His midterm grades were less than stellar - two B's, three C's and a D. "With math you have to know all the little stuff, and I missed a month of that," he says. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man remains in his locker, unread.

Ricky's not sure if jail changed him, and he's tired of talking about it. "The way I see it, I went to jail and I'm out now, you know? I'm just trying to forget about it."

He does appreciate things more - his mother's cooking, his friends, his family, his freedom. "I got home and my grandma was crying," he says. "That's the first time I'd seen her crying in my whole entire life." His hair is longer - he has hair now - and he's started wearing more conservative clothes, shirts with collars and pants that aren't quite so baggy. He also has less patience for his classmates. "At times when I see kids who are disrespectful or not paying attention, I think, man, they need to go to jail," he says. "They need to see what it can really be like. They take their freedom for granted."

But Salvador worries that his son has been damaged in some irreparable way. "He doesn't discuss his experience," Salvador says. "He doesn't talk about it. I don't really know exactly what his true feelings are. If he comes up with a nice answer, I just think he's trying to appease me. Most of the time I think he's confused. I don't know too much about these things, but he's just not as sharp. It's like his mind went to sleep on him, like it didn't want to take in all the stuff that was happening to him."

More and more, Salvador finds himself thinking, "If only . . ." If only they had moved when Ricky was a boy. If only he had forced Ricky not to wear those baggy pants and cut his hair so short. If only he hadn't hired that private attorney. If only someone had bothered to find out that Jorge Bautista was cleared right away. It's a cruel game of self-torture, one that Salvador is trying to put an end to.

"Right now, I'm looking for the good," Salvador said one afternoon as he turned to his son, sitting next to him on the blue-and-brown flowered sofa in the family living room. "Rick," he said, "God has been taking care of you for a long time. Everything seems to go against you, and then, right at the very last moment, things fall into place and you come out of it all right. And this thing, you're gonna come out of it all right too."

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