At one time or another, each of us has picked up a newspaper and read something that so profoundly affected us that it stuck with us for years and maybe even colored the way we look at the world.
For Hispanic immigrants, illegal and otherwise, the tale of how illegal alien and jail inmate Carlos Claros Castro was brutally beaten to death by two prison guards in Davidson County is just that kind of story.
I have no doubt that five, 10 or even 15 years from now, a Hispanic immigrant somewhere will be telling his or her wide-eyed kid or grand kid how our society doesn't value Hispanic lives as highly as it does other people's, how the two men who viciously beat Claros to death got just months in jail when everybody knows they'd have gotten a lot more time if it was some white guy citizen inmate they killed.
In the process, another generation worth of soul-warping prejudice and paranoia will be born. Why? Because the Winston-Salem Journal wrote that it was true, so it must have been. Because the Journal and several of the state's newspapers, including its Hispanic papers, whipped the Hispanic community into a frenzy over this case.
"We'll soon find out how much the life of a Hispanic immigrant is worth in Davidson County," a Journal editorial raged earlier this month. At the time, one of the prison guards, Lieutenant Ron Parker, was about to go on trial and jailer Brandon Huie had recently accepted a plea deal of just 16 months in prison on an involuntary manslaughter charge.
Huie and Parker claimed they were attempting to subdue Claros, who was in jail on a drunk driving charge, at the time of his death. The inmate was later found bruised from head to toe and lying in a pool of his own blood.
Read the Journal's editorials on the topic and you can practically hear the violin playing. An illegal immigrant inmate just couldn't get the justice a non-illegal, non-Hispanic one would get in today's cruel world, the paper and other publications repeatedly claimed without presenting one iota of hard factual data to back up their case.
The facts suggest otherwise. Huie and Parker, who wound up getting a minimum of 13 months in jail, received the toughest sentences I could find on record in this state in the death of an inmate in the 15 years worth of coverage of cases I looked at. Since official record keeping on this issue is nonexistent to spotty at best, I relied on an exhaustive search of stories on inmate deaths on Lexis-Nexis, a database of newspaper articles, and the memories of two legal experts.
It's possible I missed a case somewhere that attracted little attention, but the dozens of cases I found told a very different story. In case after case where inmates were violently injured or killed by their jailers or died after they were deliberately denied the medical help they begged for, either no one was charged, the case was thrown out or, at worst, jailers were charged with felonies and allowed to plead to misdemeanors.
The truth here is more likely that Claros' death led to relatively tough charges for his jailers because he was an illegal Hispanic immigrant and the Hispanic community got involved.
To its credit, the Journal did note in an April article, after four months of ethnically divisive coverage, that legal experts considered the charges against Huie and Parker "a rarity" because in this country, officers involved in inmate deaths usually aren't charged criminally. The paper then proceeded to crank out another four months of ethnically charged coverage that repeatedly left out that key fact.
Meanwhile, the family of 50-year-old Gary Rummer still doesn't have the answers they've been seeking for three years. Rummer, a non-Hispanic American citizen who was jailed in New Hanover County in 2003 for failing to perform community service after a 2002 DWI conviction, died of a broken neck and severe head injury that allegedly occurred while a deputy was attempting to handcuff him. Some investigative records in that case remain sealed and no one has been charged, which for this state is pretty typical.
Local law enforcement and the FBI have failed to charge Mecklenburg County Sheriff's officers in recent years for the brutal beatings of both black and white inmates. One of the beatings was caught on a video tape that shows the officers stomping on an inmate's head after he was already subdued. These inmates were also American citizens.
The real outrage here is how little regard we have in general for inmates' lives, particularly when the crimes they commit are far less serious than the ones committed against them in jail by law enforcement officers. This was one of those rare cases that could have been used to drive that point home to the public, and it's a damned shame that opportunity was thrown away.