By Chaka Holley
“Innocent until proven guilty is the old mantra”; but a convicted defendant is “guilty until proven innocent.” James Legate and his wife, Yolanda, are attempting to prove his innocence as he sits behind bars in Texas.
Legate was convicted of the murder of Eddie Garcia, a San Antonio businessman. Garcia, known as the “Bingo King” owned a home-health care business, tons of real estate and managed prize fighters. He is also known for giving a $35,000 bribe to former Congressman Albert Bustamante. The two of them were under FBI investigation. A federal jury found Bustamante guilty of racketeering but Garcia was never indicted. Friends of Garcia have also alluded to Garcia being involved in other illegal practices.
Legate, on the other hand, was the man on trial. His job repossessing cars landed Legate in the middle of a murder scene. It was like a scene from a television crime show. After having drinks at a sports bar, Legate reports going to Garcia’s office in search of Marilyn Maddox, a woman who had recently worked for Garcia and was behind on her car payments. Legate explained that he visited the office in an attempt to repossess her car.
According to his testimony, Legate entered a small room with Garcia. What happened next would change Legate’s life forever. Garcia grabbed a chair and threw it…“I fell and then I saw somebody [behind me]”, he explained. Legate then reported running away, never hearing gun shots. Although there is no gun residue, or any other substantiating evidence, Legate was a convicted of murder. His conviction was based solely on the facts that he had been in the office, left a business card and a briefcase containing several identification cards.
The case is founded on the testimony of a prison informant who testified in exchange for reduced sentencing. The informant reported being present at the time Legate purchased the gun used in the murder. The gun had otherwise never been connected to Legate. Click here for the full story.
Over the next twelve years later, Legate and Yolanda have made numerous failed attempts to clear his name.
A little over 19,000 writ of habeas corpus petitions were filed in the United States in 2004, most of them by state prisoners. Of the state petitions filed in the US in 1992, 23% were for homicide cases, and 39% involved other serious crimes. 35% of these cases are dismissed on merit, while 63% are dismissed on procedural grounds at the U.S. District Court level. Due to absence of funds, defendants in most non-death penalty cases are forced to represent themselves. Not surprisingly, they make a lot of procedural errors.
This was the case with James Legate. Without proper training, it is extremely difficult for people to represent themselves in legal proceedings.
Although it can take decades for the state to review death penalty writ of habeas corpus petitions, inmates on death row are far more likely to have their habeas corpus petition approved. This is directly related to their access to pro bono attorney services. Between 1978 and 1995, 47% of habeas petitions filed by death row inmates were granted. These findings all precede the 1996 adoption of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) . This act limits the number of times a petition can be filed and has created new challenges for inmates.
Yolanda is using her faith to sustain her hope and to give her the energy to keep fighting for a man she believes to be innocent. Yolanda believes that God will shine light on the truth setting James free. Her trust, along with Legate’s, is in God, it is not in the legal system.
American currency declares that our nation trusts in God. If the nation trusts in God, it logically follows that trust can be placed in the nation. Many follow this logic placing trust in the nation, the government, and its systems. This “blind faith” promotes and sustains flawed policies and laws. In Legate’s case, an ineffective attorney, lost evidence, hidden documents, and poor investigation all highlight structural flaws in our righteous system of justice.
Jesus said that what we do for the “the least of these” we do for him, and “what you do not do for the least of these, you do not do for me” Matthew 25: 34-46. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) of 1996 was instituted without input from “the least of these”, prisoners on death row. Instead of placing blind faith in the system, we should be taking an intentional look at what is being done to prisoners.
As people like James and Yolanda Legate continue to navigate the criminal justice system in search of justice for James, many others are involved a search for justice. No one knows the day or the hour when reform will come, but they continue to trust in its coming.
Chaka Holley, a student at Chicago Theological Seminary in Chicago, is working as a summer intern with Friends of Justice.