Guilty Until Proven Guilty | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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Guilty Until Proven Guilty

It doesn't take much for an ex-con to find himself back behind bars.

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By Ben Joravsky

Jason Hayes was driving with his mother and his 12-year-old nephew in Rogers Park on May 3 when the police started following him. His mother cautioned him not to speed or make a quick turn or do anything that might give the police a reason to stop them. "Well," says Hayes, "you know how it is if you're black and the police start following you closely."

The police followed him for four blocks, then pulled him over. In that instant the walls Hayes had carefully built to separate his present from his past came crashing down. "I didn't do nothing," he says. "It was a nightmare. Man, it was worse than a nightmare."

Six and a half years ago Hayes was a 17-year-old junior at Hirsch High School, living on the south side and hanging out with, as his mother told him, the wrong bunch of boys. "I wasn't doing right," he says. "I was gang-banging, standing on the block smoking marijuana, drinking--just being stupid. My mother told me, but I didn't listen. I was heading for trouble, and trouble came."

On January 10, 1995, one of his buddies, a guy named James, talked him into going to a party at a girl's house in Roseland. "He came to my house in this car--I didn't know whose car it was," says Hayes. "I drove. James got in the back with another buddy. I drove to some block--I think it was 103rd. We were driving up and down, looking for the house. But it was dark and hard to see. James is saying, 'I think this is the block. I'll get out and look.'"

Apparently, James had other things on his mind when he left the car besides finding a girl's house. According to the police report filed with the state's attorney's office, James pulled a mask over his head, took out a loaded .38 caliber pistol, and walked up to a man and woman who were sitting in a parked truck.

It turned out that the man in the truck was an off-duty policeman who had his own gun. "Next thing you know, I heard shots," says Hayes. "I hit the gas--I was panicking. Then I stop almost in the middle of the block, 'cause I see James running to the car. He gets in bleeding like crazy. I drove off looking for help. We wound up at a Shell gas station at 95th and the Dan Ryan--it's not there no more. I'm saying, 'Call an ambulance.' Then the police come up. They throw me over the counter, and they're saying, 'What the hell happened?' And you know something? I didn't know what had happened."

Within a few days the police had charged Hayes with attempted murder with intent to kill or injure--no one was seriously hurt. "It turns out that the car was stolen, though I didn't know it," he says. "I didn't know what James was doing either. I didn't know he had a gun. I thought he was looking for the girl's house. I swear."

Hayes wound up copping a plea for a ten-year prison term. He says he didn't know what else to do. "My family didn't have enough money to hire a lawyer, so I worked with what I had, which was the public defender. She said, 'Take the ten years. It's the best we can get you.' I took the ten years. Listen, I'm not trying to get out of who I was or what I was doing back then. Still, I wasn't involved in no robbery that night. I didn't know it was going down. But in some ways they all did me a favor. 'Cause prison made me a man. It made me what I am today. If I didn't get locked up I might be dead now. I mean, I was going nowhere. I was just a stupid, stupid teenager. But going to the penitentiary forced me to confront the person I was and make me have the discipline to go on with my life. I hated every day I was in jail. I never ever want to go back. But as strange as this sounds, it was what I needed in order to survive."

On October 10, 1999, he was paroled, having served less than half of his sentence (the buddy was paroled the same day; James is still in prison). "I tried to do what I could in prison," he says. "I got my GED. I worked out with weights. I did my best to stay out of trouble. I wouldn't have survived without my family, particularly my older sister and my mother. They were my strength. They were there for me, and they didn't stop being there for me after I got out. I went to live with my mother at her house in Rogers Park."

Under the terms of his parole, every month he was required to meet at his home with his parole officer and to call the state's parole line. "Because I was living on the north side, my parole office was the one near North Avenue and Laramie," he says. "My parole officer was Agent Bracy. He was smooth. We stayed in touch. I checked in every month on that phone, and he came by every month to my mom's house. We had no problems."

Over the next two years Hayes took a series of jobs--stock clerk, bill collector, toy-store salesman. He moved to an apartment on the near south side and saved up enough money to get his own phone. Through an employment counselor named Mel Johnson, he found a job he enjoyed, driving a delivery truck for a west-side furniture store. "I see hundreds of kids like Jason, who got in trouble and are trying to make something of their lives," says Johnson, director of employee services for Pyramid Partnership, a north-side employment agency. "I believe we need to cry for people like Jason. As far as what happened way back on that night, well, you have to say it might have had a different legal outcome had he had a real lawyer and a real chance to defend himself. All I'm saying is that people are quick to say, 'Here's another black kid who went bad.' And I say, 'OK, the man deserves a chance to start again.' I know his employer very well. I checked in with them. They told me Jason was doing a good job."

Hayes had just got off work and had his weekly pay in his pocket when his mother picked him up at the train station in Rogers Park on May 3. "I was tired and didn't feel like driving, so I asked Jason to drive," says Jason's mother, Juanita Hayes. "We had my 12-year-old grandson Alex in the back. I was in the passenger seat. The windows were down, because it was a hot day. Now you have to understand, my car was recently burglarized. The thieves tore up my steering column, and the turn signal didn't work. We were going east on Rogers when I saw there was a police car behind us."

The next few moments were almost comical, as mother and son bickered about how he was driving. "My mother's telling me all these things while those cops were following," says Jason. "She's saying, 'Don't give them an excuse to pull us over.' We pulled up to a stoplight, and I made a right turn signal with my hand because, remember, my mother's blinkers weren't working. Then she says, 'Don't drive too fast.' And I'm saying, 'I have to accelerate to drive.' She said, 'Slow down.' I'm going--what?--15 miles an hour. Any slower and I'll have to park. They followed us for four blocks, and then they pulled me over."

The police got out of their car and walked toward Juanita's car. "There were two officers," she says. "One came up on Jason's side, and the other came up on mine. I said to the officer at my window, 'Why are you stopping us?' He didn't say anything. The other officer says to Jason, 'Do you have a driver's license?' Jason said, 'Yes, I drive for a living.' The officer says, 'What do you do for a living?' Jason says, 'I drive a truck.' He says, 'We're gonna run your license. If everything's OK you'll be free to go.' I'm thinking, 'What's this all about? Why are they asking what he does for a living? Why are they running his license? Why aren't we free to go, since we didn't do anything wrong?'

"Again, I said to the cop on my side, 'What did you stop us for?' Finally, he says, 'You have tinted windows--that's reason enough to stop you. And you don't have a brake light.' Well, first of all, they must have done a lot of studying of my car while they were following us to know I have tinted windows, 'cause the windows were down. Secondly, my brake lights did indeed work, 'cause afterwards I had my car checked at Sears just to make sure."

The officers then told Jason to leave the car. "The one officer pulled me by the belt loop and frisked me all up under my private parts and down my legs, and then they put me in the police car," he says. "They made me sit in the back of their car, then they ran my license. That's when they told me, 'There's a warrant for your arrest.'"

It turned out that the Illinois Department of Corrections had charged Jason with violating his parole. "When they told me that I was shocked," he says. "I had been in contact with my parole officer. I had my face-to-face meeting in March. I had called in in April. Officer Bracy had told me a new officer would get in touch with you, 'cause I had moved out of his district when I moved to the South Loop. I was waiting for that new agent to come over for the monthly home visit. I had done everything. If they needed to find me they know where to reach me--they knew where I worked. All they had to do was call over there. But they never called."

The police took him to the lockup at 6464 N. Clark and put him in a cell. After an hour or so they moved him to the central lockup, where he spent the night. In the morning the police took him and eight or nine other prisoners in a van to the state prison at Joliet.

Meanwhile his mother and older sister, Gaylon Roberson, were frantically trying to find out what was going on. "My mother called me and said, 'They got Jason,'" says Roberson. "I said, 'Who's got Jason?' She said, 'The police.' So I called my aunt, who happens to be a policewoman. She calls back to say Jason's at the central lockup and that he was arrested for an illegal hand signal. I called the central lockup, but I couldn't get any answers. Then Jason called me collect--and he's scared. He said, 'I haven't done nothing.' I said, 'Jason, did you check in?' He said, 'Gaylon, I swear to God I've been checking in.'"

The morning after Jason was picked up Roberson hit the phones and discovered that her brother's case had been transferred to a parole officer who worked out of the office at 21st and Indiana. "My mother and I drove to that office and asked to speak to the agent," she says. "He wasn't in yet. But as we were walking out he came walking in. I said, 'My brother is in the central lockup.' He said, 'I've never met Jason. I was trying to make a couple of visits, but I could never get in touch with him.' I said, 'Well, he works days.' He said, 'This is probably a misunderstanding, a case of miscommunication. Come back with me. I can put in a request to withdraw the warrant.' So he goes into his office and pulls up the computer, and he says, 'Yes, I called Jason at this number.' And my mother says, 'That's my phone number--Jason doesn't live there anymore.' He said he'll talk to his supervisors about withdrawing the warrant. He gave me his pager number."

By one in the afternoon, Roberson says, she still hadn't heard from the new parole officer. "So I called him on his cell. I asked if he had heard from his supervisor, and he said she had denied his request. Then the phone clicked dead. I paged him, but he never called back. So I called Jason's old parole officer, Agent Bracy. He said, 'I just saw Jason at the end of the month. We know he moved to a new apartment.' I said the other agent didn't know where Jason was working. So Bracy looked at his computer and said, 'I can see your brother's working at a furniture store.' And that's when it hit me--that new agent hadn't looked hard enough for Jason. 'Cause if he had looked a little harder he could have found his work address, just like Bracy, right there in the computer."

Meanwhile, Jason was put in a cell in Joliet's holding wing. "It was a small cell, and I shared it with a drug dealer from Chicago," he says. "It was almost total lockdown. No paper, no pen--nothing but one shower a week. There was a bunk bed and a toilet in there. I slept on and off. Can't do nothing, not going nowhere. Trying not to lose my mind. They slide in a tray for breakfast in the morning and lunch in the afternoon and dinner in the evening. It was like that for almost a full week. Finally on Thursday morning, May 10--a week after I was pulled over--they sent me to the prison at Centralia.

"That was even worse, at least at first. They put me in a cell with a satanist. This crazy dude is making his bond with Satan, talking in tongues, acting like a fool. I'm sitting there listening to him worship the devil, thinking, if he doesn't stop I will lose my mind. Finally I couldn't take it no more. I said, 'You're going to have to stop that.' And he did. Thank God he did, 'cause I don't know what would have happened."

By borrowing money from friends, Juanita Hayes and Gaylon Roberson were able to pay the May rent on Jason's apartment. Mel Johnson pleaded with Jason's boss to hold his job for him. Juanita filed a complaint with the police department in which she alleged that they'd been stopped because of racial profiling--there's no record that he was ever charged with a traffic violation. She also asked the state to immediately release her son. She says she got the bureaucratic runaround on both points.

Juanita says she went to a police board hearing, hoping to persuade the members to take action on the racial-profiling complaint. She'd brought a letter, but instead of reading it she just spoke. "I was very upset. 'I want to know what my son did--other than being black--to get pulled over. I want to know what kind of system we have that allows police officers to behave this way. And please understand, I am not upset with all police officers. I come from a family of officers. My sister was married to a cop. My sister is a cop. Her daughter, my niece, is a police officer. In general, our family had a lot of military people in it. We are a family that believes in the system. We have always tried to work through the system. I admit my son got into it with the wrong crowd. But that was six years ago. He did his time.'

"Police superintendent Terry Hillard was at that meeting, and when I was finished he said, 'Mrs. Hayes, something will have to be done about this.'" She says he promised to investigate her racial-profiling allegation, and she gave an affidavit. David Bayless, a police department spokesman, said in late June that the matter remains under investigation. "I don't have much information to offer," he said. "As I understand it, Jason Hayes was stopped for a minor traffic violation. This is under investigation. We take racial-profiling accusations seriously."

In mid-May, Department of Corrections officials told Roberson and Juanita Hayes that they couldn't release Jason until he'd met with a parole board officer. He didn't get that meeting until June 6--after he'd been in prison for more than a month. "I met with this older man," Jason says. "I said, 'I guess it's just a technical mistake.' He said, 'The Department of Corrections doesn't make technical mistakes.' He said they were going to mark me down as having violated my parole, but they were going to release me anyway."

On June 7 Jason was released. "Even then it wasn't over," says Roberson. "I got a call from a woman for the state who says she's calling to confirm that Jason has a place to be released to. She said, 'Who's been paying his rent while he's been in jail?' I said, 'I have.' She said, 'Well, you're a good sister.' She told me that if he didn't have a place to go to they wouldn't let him out.

Isn't that something? They can lock a man up in jail--even though he didn't do anything wrong--causing him to lose his apartment. Then they're gonna keep him in jail 'cause he's got no place to go."

State officials say the incident proves that the system works, since, after all, Jason was released. "Here's what happened," says Nic Howell, a corrections department spokesman. "A warrant was issued because he was AWOL. They got him, and they held him until he had his hearing. Nothing was illegal. That's the procedure. There's a check and balance on this stuff. That's how the law works. If these people want to complain about that, they can talk to their legislators to get the law changed."

Asked whether the parole board had decided at the hearing that Jason had violated his parole or that the department had made a mistake, Howell said, "I have no idea what they found," though he did say Jason's record won't be affected. And he did note, "This guy did a ten-year sentence for attempted murder. He's no sweetheart."

Jason has hired a lawyer and plans to sue the state for false imprisonment. Meanwhile he's struggling to get on with his life. His boss had kept his job for him, but after a couple of weeks on the job Jason quit.

"It seemed like once I got back to the furniture store everything had changed," he says. "They weren't letting me drive anymore. I was staying in all the time and doing cleaning." Mel Johnson helped him find a new job, driving for a limo service. "It sometimes seems like no one wants a guy like me to have a chance. But I don't want to feel sorry for myself. I've got my family. I've got Mel Johnson. I'm trying to stay strong."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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