Former Port Isabel Detainee, Rama Carty on Trial: Some Reflections

By Nick Braune

Charged with assaulting two officers at Port Isabel Detention Center near Brownsville, Texas last June, Rama Carty went to trial this week. I sat in the courtroom on Friday to hear the closing arguments and waited around for four hours to hear the verdict.

The Federal District Court in Brownsville is in a beautiful modern building, well lit, with a bright, spacious center stairway luring you to walk up. From a circular railing on the third floor, you can look down on the second and first floor. Because each floor has high ceilings, it is quite a distance. I accidentally dropped my pen over the railing, nearly hitting a security guard. He stared up at me for a second as I tapped my head apologetically and made an “I’m so dumb” facial expression. An attractive building, it has some artistic touches and some fascinating century-old photographs of Brownsville: onion carts, with horses and a few cars on the streets, and with many poor working people just like today. (I noticed Brownsville once had an inter-city trolley.) Still the court building had too much cement, marble and power for my taste, another face of the militarized border.

If you haven’t heard the trial results, I won’t make you wait: after three hours, the jury notified the judge that they were too divided, would never agree. The judge instructed them to keep trying, but within another hour they all gave up. A mistrial was declared. It puts Carty in limbo for a while, waiting to hear if prosecutors will retry the case. He will remain out on pre-trial release, probably wearing an ankle bracelet, until prosecutors decide.

On the bright side, it was a black eye for current immigration enforcement (ICE). The federal judge and the prosecutor, judging from their facial expressions in court, had anticipated a routine ICE slam dunk. Two detention officers had testified that Rama was in an intimidating fighting stance, refusing to comply, so they had to jump on him to take him down. And a professional, calm ICE investigator had testified perfectly that ICE had investigated and found the officers to have acted correctly. What more information could jurors need?

The prosecutor opened her closing arguments, appealing to common sense. The Port Isabel facility houses dangerous persons from all over. (She is partially right, it has people from all over — Carty for instance was born in Africa, although the government tried unsuccessfully to depart him to Haiti for some reason. He was living and working in Massachusetts when he was picked up and shipped to Texas. But the prosecutor should have told jurors that detainees are not being held at Port Isabel on criminal charges, but civil charges. Some are out of compliance with immigration paperwork, some were picked up in workplace raids, some are waiting for refugee status documentation, etc.)

The prosecutor asked the jury what would happen if violent inmates did not comply with the detention guards and ICE agents who are assigned to control the institution. “What if everyone just did what they wanted there?” It would be chaos, obviously. The jurors sat stone-faced, so I figured they were swallowing her rant. (She dramatically sneered and pointed at the defendant.)

What split the jury, I can only guess. Maybe three things. First, although there are 140 cameras in the detention facility, the only film the prosecutors could show the jury simply showed Carty on the ground being handcuffed. The camera technician apparently had made some error, having the camera off during the disputed minutes that could explain why and how guards knocked Carty down.

Secondly, there was a confusing story about a razor Carty had, which supposedly cut one of the guards when they jumped him. (Carty was not accused of using it as a weapon.) Rama was awakened at 5 A.M. and told to prepare immediately to go to another facility. (This happened the day after he had spoken to Amnesty International about bad conditions at the center. He had also spoken to Democracy Now previously and was known to be a leader among the inmates.) Half-awake, but complying, he went into another area to wash, dress and shave.

Coming back, he said he wanted to speak to a lawyer and had a right to speak again to Amnesty. Then the guards jumped Carty — the public defender suggested in his closing argument that guards don’t like prisoners who read law books — and somehow they lost the alleged injurious razor. It was never found, tested for blood, etc.

A third thing possibly influenced the jurors: Carty genuinely seems quiet, bookish and concerned.

The Brownsville Herald reporter interviewed jurors afterward: six believed Carty was not guilty. I doubt ICE will retry it.

One further reflection: Although I was disappointed and nervous that Carty had to have a public defender, the attorney, Paul Hajjar, was pretty good. He portrayed Carty as an thoughtful “library man” who wanted his legal rights honored. And he responded to the prosecution’s picture of Carty as “intimidating” quite well. It is true, he said to the jurors, that if you were alone on a dark street and a large black man was walking on the sidewalk your way, you might feel intimidated. But that is not an instance of someone “knowing and forcibly” intimidating you. Hajjar effectively planted the idea in the jury that there are prejudices that work against someone like Carty.

[This article also appears in the Mid-Valley Town Crier. A previous article on Rama Carty appeared in TCRR in July 2009.]

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