A man in Oregon has been held in jail for nearly 900 days, but has never been charged with a crime.
The Associated Press reported yesterday that Benito Vasquez-Hernandez has spent 897 days in the Washington County Jail, where he is being held as a material witness in his son’s pending murder trial.
The 59-year-old man, an immigrant, has bail set at $500,000.
Washington County prosecutor Jeff Lesowski told The Oregonian recently that Vasquez-Hernandez’s testimony is crucial in the case against his elder son, Eloy Vasquez-Santiago, who stands accused of murdering a co-worker in 2012.
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Lesowski says he believes Vasquez-Hernandez likely wouldn’t show up to testify in the trial if he were to be released, so he has opted to hold the man under the state’s seldom used material witness detention laws.
"We only ask for it in extraordinary situations," Lesowski told The Oregonian.
Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, says, though, there are problems with witness detention laws. He argued against the federal government’s use of such laws to hold terrorism suspects without probable cause following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Gelernt declined to comment directly on the Washington County case, but told The Oregonian that, in general, no one should be locked up for more than two years without being charged with a crime.
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"Assuming it is ever constitutional to lock up an uncharged person to secure his testimony," Gelernt said, "the detention must be as minimal as possible to avoid a grave injustice."
Vasquez-Hernandez is not the only witness who has been held in Vasquez-Santiago’s pending murder trial. The man’s younger son, Moises Vasquez-Santiago, was held for 727 days but was released after being diagnosed as schizophrenic. Court records indicate the man likely had his first psychotic break while locked in jail.
Moises Vasquez-Santiago’s attorney, David Rich, wrote in court filings while arguing for his client’s release that being in jail for so long was making the man “literally crazy.”
Prosecutors say the two witnesses are vital to the case which lacks little physical evidence. The father, they say, told investigators he saw blood in Eloy Vasquez-Santiago’s van shortly after his co-worker, Maria Bolanos-Rivera, went missing. Authorities also believe that Eloy Vasquez-Santiago confessed to his younger brother brother that he stabbed the woman to death.
Her body has never been found.
Lesowski said it’s regrettable that Vasquez-Hernandez has spent nearly 900 days in jail but pointed out that he didn’t cooperate during an attempt to videotape a deposition.
Moises Vasquez-Santiago did give a pretrial deposition prior to his release.
Vasquez-Hernandez’s attorney, Alan Biedermann, said it’s not that his client wasn’t cooperating, it’s that he lacks formal education, doesn’t understand the legal process, and has a lower than normal mental capacity.
“It was not a matter of contempt or defiance,” he said. "It was the result of his failure to understand the process.”
Biedermann said he decided against petitioning the Oregon Supreme Court for his client’s release, because the state appears to be acting within the law. That means Vasquez-Hernandez will likely remain in jail until he testifies at his son’s trial. Biedermann called the situation “sad.”
"That's a long time to spend in the Washington County Jail,” he told The Oregonian.
Photo Credit: KOIN News courtesy of Washington County Sheriff’s Office, WikiCommons