For five days recently, Luis Duarte sat in the Prince William County jail, not knowing that he should be released, not realizing that because of someone else's mistake, he was sitting there, scared, confused and forgotten in a system that had lost someone like him before.
"I had never been in jail," Duarte said in Spanish. "It was horrible. There's so many people, and you're scared of everyone you see, because you don't really know who you are living with."
For the second time in a year, a Hispanic immigrant who does not speak English remained in the jail after his release date. The first time, Fernando Antonio Cruz, a 25-year-old from Mexico, lingered behind bars for two months after he should have been freed. This time, it was Duarte, a 21-year-old from El Salvador who has lived legally in the area on a work visa since he was a teenager.
How Duarte ended up slipping into the same bureaucratic crevice as Cruz -- and why he was told he would not be released until June, even though a court declared him free in April -- is being looked into by the Virginia attorney general's office. Jail officials said that it should not have happened and that the county has been trying to improve communication between the judicial branches.
Duarte's attorneys, meanwhile, say his case illustrates a larger problem.
"What we have here is clearly a serious equal-protection issue for the entire population that does not speak English," said Alexandria-based lawyer Victor M. Glasberg. "They are dramatically more at risk of getting lost in the abyss."
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Before Luis Duarte stepped into the jail, his life was one of carefully coordinated days. Seven days a week, from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m., he worked cutting trees, and from 5 p.m. until 10:30 p.m., he stocked shelves at a Manassas grocery store. In the few hours in between, he slept in a rented room at a friend's house.
While he was in jail, he said, he watched helplessly as it all slipped away.
He was fired from the tree job when he didn't show up, he said. Then the grocery store job was gone. He gave up the room to someone else after jail officials told him he wouldn't be released until at least June 14, the date that jail records listed as his next court appearance.
What jail officials didn't know -- because it had not received the proper paperwork from General District Court -- is that the charges against Duarte had been settled and he was free to go, his attorneys said. The case was settled April 27, and the June court date was no longer on the docket.
"He would have sat there," his criminal attorney, Cindy L. Decker, said. "June would have come. June would have gone."
Decker, who made the calls that got Duarte out of jail, said this is what happened:
On April 12, Duarte was charged with driving under the influence, a misdemeanor, and forging a public document, a felony. Decker said the latter had been a misunderstanding because of his name: Jose Luis Duarte Flores. When police questioned him, he signed two documents "Luis Flores" and then signed a copy of his warrant "Luis Duarte," according to the criminal complaint.
Decker said that when she realized the felony charge was a mistake, she had his court date moved up and asked prosecutors to amend the charge to obstruction of justice, which they did, according to court documents. On April 27, Duarte pleaded guilty to the obstruction charge, for which he was fined $200, and to DUI, for which he was sentenced to 90 days in jail with all but five suspended.
He should have been allowed to go home that day. But five days later, a lawyer in Decker's office, Mark Voss, got a call from Duarte's friend asking how much more money it would take to get him out, not understanding how the U.S. justice system works.
"It was the first we knew that he had never been released," Decker said. "I was so angry. . . . He lost everything because he spent five extra days in jail."
For Voss, it was a too-familiar echo. He was the attorney for Cruz, the last man who had been left too long in the jail.
"This has got to stop," Voss said. "It's the same story we had last time."
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After Cruz was wrongly held in the jail last year -- released only after his brother found a clerk in the courthouse who would listen to him -- jail and court officials apologized for the mistake. They said human error, complicated by a language barrier and cultural differences with names, caused the error. His last name was listed as "Antonio Cruz" in court documents and as "Cruz" in jail records, they said.
Officials said they struggle with tracking Hispanic names, which tend to be long and include two last names. Because of the mix-up, the jail never took the inmate to court, and a clerk never sent the jail a release order.
"It seems like there was a breakdown on a couple of levels," Tawny G. Hayes, clerk of General District Court, said at the time.
Afterward, she and jail officials said they were putting mechanisms in place to make sure it did not happen again.
The Prince William jail superintendent, Col. Charles "Skip" Land, said that after the Cruz case, the county's criminal justice branches realized that they needed to communicate better.
He said officials have met monthly to discuss how to improve the system. The jail board also hired an outside consultant, and the jail began printing more literature in Spanish, he said.
"You never want an incident where a guy stays an extra minute than he should," Land said. "That should never happen."
At the same time, he said, the jail processes more than 1,000 inmates a month, with a trail of paperwork attached to each. If the jail does not receive the proper paperwork and a court date is shown as pending, officials have to be careful about not releasing an inmate too soon, he said.
He estimated that 25 percent of the jail's inmates are immigrants, the majority from Spanish-speaking countries.
When asked about the Duarte case, Hayes said she was told to refer all questions to Chief District Court Judge Wenda K. Travers, who said the case had been handed over to the attorney general's office, which would answer questions.
J. Tucker Martin, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, confirmed that officials there were "reviewing the situation," but said they had no further comment.
Glasberg said he plans to contact the attorney general's office to discuss the situation. He said he has every expectation that it can be resolved through agreement rather than litigation.
He will not file suit, he said, if officials take two actions: compensate Duarte for what he lost, and put in place reasonable measures to ensure that "non-English-speaking people are not left in a black hole."
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Although Cruz disappeared soon after his release, Duarte has decided to stick around and fight.
"I just don't want this to happen to other people," he said. "If I was there for days, then other people could be there for years."
Duarte, who has no relatives in the area, said he was walking out of English class at the jail when a guard checked his number and told him he was free to go.
"He said, 'You're leaving,' " Duarte recalled. "I said, 'Me?' "
"Then I started jumping up and down," he added. "I was excited . . . telling people I was free."
When they finally let him out of the jail, no one was there to greet him, and so he did the only thing that made sense, he said.
He began walking and didn't stop until he got home. When he got there, his room was gone, so he would stay on the couch, at least for a few days.