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Prisoner lost in translation

Through human error complicated by language and cultural differences, Fernando Antonio Cruz had been forgotten. Like many immigrants, he had become as invisible inside the criminal justice system as he was outside and was left in jail two months after his case was closed.
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The man had been there before, wandering around the second floor of the Prince William County courthouse, his face a mask of worry.

No one knew how often he had come or to whom he had talked. But Kerry Kaiser, a clerk who sits at an information desk in front of the elevators, knew she'd seen him. She thought she might even have talked to him once, briefly, before the day when she really listened to what he said to her in Spanish.

"I didn't know exactly what he was saying, something about his brother," she said. "He was just desperate: 'This is my brother. I need to find him.' "

He said that his brother, Fernando Antonio Cruz, had been left in the county jail and that he should have been freed already. With a few clicks, Kaiser opened a file on her computer and confirmed that his case had been dismissed in December. It was February.

She alerted the clerk's office, which faxed a release order to the jail. Court records show that it was dated 3:01 p.m. Feb. 15, with the handwritten words "was dismissed 12-12-05!!"

Through human error complicated by language and cultural differences, Cruz had been forgotten. Like many immigrants, he had become as invisible inside the criminal justice system as he was outside. As the number of Hispanics has swelled to more than 16 percent of Prince William's 348,588 residents, Cruz's case shows how one immigrant can find himself lost in the judicial system.

Every morning, dozens of Latinos come by Kaiser's desk. Many appear confused, frustrated. Starved for familiarity, they devour her every word, even if her Spanish is a bit broken.

Kaiser, 59, speaks English with a strong Tennessee accent and Spanish with the inconsistency of someone who taught herself more through desire than formal training. But she tries, and she sympathizes, and on a February afternoon when the halls were mostly hushed except for a man wandering around with a worried look, she listened.

Striving to keep up with population changes
Mark Voss, a defense lawyer who frequently works out of the Prince William courthouse, said that what happened to Cruz is in part a product of the county's changing caseload.

"You go to court, and it looks like you're looking at Juárez," Voss said, referring to the Mexican city. "I go over there and start speaking Spanish, and the next thing I know three or four people are coming over. . . . I open my mouth, and all of a sudden I'm surrounded."

Voss was there the day Cruz's brother came looking for help. He explained to the man that his brother would be released in a few moments and that he should take his brother home and then call Voss, because they had a potential lawsuit against the county. "Somebody made a mistake," Voss said. "If you spend two extra months in jail, that's not like spending an extra night in jail."

In the two decades he has worked in Prince William, Voss said, he's seen the justice system strive to keep up with population changes -- hiring more Spanish speakers, printing court literature in two languages, commissioning more translators.

"Yes, it has adjusted," Voss said. "Has it adjusted as fast as I would have liked it to adjust? Probably not."

When Cruz's brother did not call back, Voss spent weekends and nights trying to find him. He even hired a private investigator. Neither had success. Two addresses are listed for Cruz -- one that does not exist, and another where no one seems to live.

All that is known about Cruz is what can be pieced together from court records: He is 25, from Mexico and lives in Manassas. He worked as a contractor in Warrenton, earning $20,800 a year. He claimed to have no bank account, no real estate, no car.

It appears he's still in the area. Manassas police charged him July 2 with stealing beer from a 7-Eleven and issued a summons to appear in court this month.

"He's out there somewhere. I just wish I could find him," Voss said, adding that he is not surprised that Cruz chose to drift into a familiar anonymity. "They are told to keep a low profile, keep your head below the bushes."

Legal breakdown
Cruz's legal problems started Oct. 15.

He was charged with being drunk in public and fighting with another man. An officer who arrived at the scene wrote in a criminal complaint that Cruz's blood alcohol level was .175, more than twice the legal limit, and that the other man had a large gash on the right side of his head from being punched and hit with a belt.

When the wounded man did not show up in court Dec. 12, the case was dismissed. And that's where it should have ended. Normally, jail officials would have brought Cruz to the courthouse for the hearing, and the court clerk would have issued a release order for him. He could have walked into freedom that day.

But neither happened.

"It seems like there was a breakdown on a couple of levels," said Tawny G. Hays, clerk of the General District Court.

From the beginning, his last name was entered as "Antonio Cruz" in court documents and as "Cruz" in jail records -- a problem that both jail and court officials say often arises with Hispanic names that tend to be long and include an also-known-as.

Col. Charles "Skip" Land, who heads the jail, said the name might explain why officials failed to bring Cruz to court Dec. 12. "Some people also come in with a hyphen between their name and then don't come up unless that hyphen is typed in," he said.

"You certainly don't want to hold someone longer than you should and deprive them of their freedom," Land added. "I'm sorry that this happened."

But even when an inmate is not present in court, he said, a clerk should issue a release order and fax it to the jail. That was not done until Kaiser alerted the clerk's office.

Hays said the clerk initially didn't type up an order because "there wasn't any reason for her to believe he was in jail" because he wasn't in court. Cruz also could have posted a $5,000 bond the night before, she said.

"This is not a good thing, and it makes me feel very badly," Hays said. She added that "what is unusual is the attorney didn't raise a flag."

Cruz's defense attorney, Joseph Thelin, said he was concerned and called the jail's records department the next day. He doesn't usually follow up on each dismissed case, but he had been worried when Cruz was not brought to the courthouse.

"They said he had been released," Thelin said. "That is where I had left it. . . . I don't think anyone intentionally lied to me. I think it was just a mix-up."

Thelin said he has agreed to help Voss with the case against the county if he ever locates Cruz.

Afraid to enforce rights
Lucas Guttentag, director of the Immigrants' Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union, said it is not unusual for immigrants to fear fighting the system when they have been wronged. It is not uncommon for them to slip into the shadows, he said.

"The sad truth may be that there are more people suffering wrongs who are afraid to try to enforce their legal rights than we are generally aware of," he said.

In September, the D.C. government agreed to pay $12 million to inmates who claimed that they were jailed hours and days longer than they should have been. And in March, a Guatemalan immigrant laborer, Ramiro Games, 46, who was charged with a misdemeanor in Prince George's County that often results in probation or a few days in jail, was released after spending nearly six months in jail without going to trial. Because he didn't speak English, he was unable to alert anyone that his case had not been heard.

The Prince William jail began offering English classes to inmates in January; 1,251 people have enrolled, with 233 inmates signing up in June.

Land said jail records do not indicate that Cruz ever questioned why he had not been released.

If he had, Land said, "somebody would have heard him." Of the jail's 252 employees, 30 speak Spanish. At the courthouse, four of the 34 employees who work for the General District Court can speak the language. Hays said those four are often called on to help translate.

"The object is not to send them away and say, 'I can't help you, buddy. Go learn the language.' We don't do that," she said.

Need for Spanish speakers
On a typical morning, Kaiser bounces between Spanish and English at least once every few minutes. "Archives," she tells one man. " Archivo ," she tells another.

She has worked at the courthouse for 22 years and taught herself Spanish in 1992, when she first noticed the influx of Salvadoran and Mexican immigrants in Prince William. The county has grown to 16.4 percent Hispanic, compared with 5.7 percent in Virginia, according to the latest census.

"I made the stupid mistake of learning, 'May I help you?' first," she said, adding that she would then inevitably have to tell people she couldn't understand anything else.

Since then, Kaiser has learned enough Spanish to ask about individual cases, to give directions to the appropriate courtroom, to converse on a basic level.

She even developed a course that she has taught to firefighters, several lawyers and a judge at the courthouse.

The county offers a $1,500 stipend to Spanish speakers, but the last time Kaiser took the test, she failed. She said it tested her vocabulary on everything but court matters.

"Everyone says you should just say, 'No, I don't speak Spanish,' " Kaiser said. "Then what? Just let it all fall apart?"