The specifics of the federal racketeering indictment and the subsequent kangaroo trial deserve a separate story as well, but it’s worth noting some basics. The feds had been watching Jay and his ALKQN for years and even had a man inside. Jose Lugo, who I knew as King Hova from Charlotte, wore a wire and still came away with almost nothing. Of the Kings who stood trial with Jay on a barrage of charges that were almost entirely lacking in physical evidence linking them to the crimes, about half were set free, including Hype who had been wrongfully held for a year without bail.
I’d love to go point by point through the contradicting witness testimony and outline just how pathetic the feds’ case against him and the other Kings was, but when it comes to a vague charge like conspiracy to commit racketeering, you’d be as confused as the jury appeared to be. On a Wednesday afternoon, the day before Thanksgiving in 2012, they found Jay guilty on three charges.
Jay and I didn’t talk for most of the year leading up to his trial. I contributed a little money here and there to help the Kings afford things like phone calls, but we couldn’t raise enough money for lawyers. I visited other Kings like Hype at the jail in downtown Winston-Salem, and went to see Speechless, with whom I was friendly before he took a plea deal and cooperated in Jay’s prosecution.
When news of a deal involving several defendants including Speechless reached us, I had an unsent letter written to Focus in my notebook. Focus, the one whom Jay encouraged and supported as he went back to school, the one for whom Jay found a cooking job when he finished. I always liked Speechless — he was a funny, thin guy with braids, about my age, with a propensity for dancing but a heart condition that kept him from it. The betrayal by Focus, Speechless and others I knew stung me, but I could only imagine how Jay felt because we still weren’t talking.
I eventually reached out to Jay in a letter before his trial, telling him that regardless of our petty beef I wanted to quash our differences and that it didn’t matter in the face of this bigger evil of a sham trial. He readily agreed.
Testifying can be a nerve-wracking experience, though I don’t remember being fazed when I took the stand after Jay’s silly arrest at the downtown music festival. This time was different. I had been having dreams about Jay and the other defendants walking free, but I had always had a sinking feeling that since the feds were involved, everything would be different. Plus, this time I knew that Jay was looking at serious time, possibly life, on the bevy of charges.
My testimony can’t have lasted very long, but even though I was telling the truth I remember my leg shaking and my hands sweating as the prosecutor cross-examined me. I didn’t know until right before I was called that I would be testifying at all. In fact a federal agent working for the prosecution had called my office and, without identifying himself, tried to find out if I would be testifying, acting as if he were part of the team of public defenders.
I didn’t know until after that call, when Jay’s lawyer reached out in what felt like an afterthought, that I’d be asked to appear. The most useful thing I can imagine I did was contradict some of the false images the prosecution wanted to paint. I was asked about the trip to Detroit, which the indictment had hilariously and terrifyingly referred to as a trip to a Latin Kings criminal conference. But for the most part I doubt I added much at all, unable to provide direct alibis for anything specific.
We were able to influence the sentencing by writing letters to the judge. Citing the overwhelming community support of Jay as a social-change agent, father and friend, evidenced by letters I and many others wrote, the judge made some of Jay’s sentences concurrent, limiting his time to 28 years. Once the verdict was in, that gigantic length of time is basically the minimum Jay could have received.
I visited Jay several times in that big, red, ugly jail in downtown Winston-Salem before he was bounced around. We feared he would land in federal prison somewhere like Oklahoma, so we were glad, all things considered, when he wound up three hours away in a medium-security prison near Petersburg, Va.
We’re able to communicate through an email system for inmates called CorrLinks, which is free for people on the outside but costs him based on time. Our relationship has waxed and waned, connecting more through the support I can provide his daughters who are in middle and high school with things like rides to softball practice.
I’ve only managed to travel up to the prison to see him twice, most recently the weekend after Christmas with a friend and Jay’s daughters so they could see him. After making it through the seemingly arbitrary and ever-changing dress code at the front, a guard escorts visitors into a large room in spurts, where some physical contact with inmates is allowed as people sit around low, plastic tables.
On our recent visit my friend and I lingered near the snack machines along the side wall to give Jay a chance to be alone with his daughters. They’re too young to drive up alone, so this is the closest they can come to privacy. Since I last saw him he’s gotten two big tattoos of their faces on his forearm, and we all joked about how hairy their images appear.
We took turns playing chess and checkers from a small stack of available games. When we walked to the corner to have our picture taken together, Jay told us the inmate with the camera was one of the star players on the softball team Jay coached.
I’ve been inside a prison before, albeit a minimum-security one, as part of a literacy and discussion group volunteer project at Guilford College. But I had no context of those guys in the outside world, only ever knowing them in their green prison pants.
Seeing someone you know in prison shakes you. It’s most jarring at the end of the visit, when you’re pulled back into reality by the guards who split the room into lines on opposite sides of the room. You stand there, staring across the gulf, waiting for a guard to hand you back your driver’s license, and try to act normal.
As the guards signaled the end of visitation that Sunday, Jay joked that now it was time for his favorite part of the visit — a strip and full cavity search. But, he said in a more serious tone, it was absolutely worth it.
Jay just wants to be set free and leave his old life behind. All he really wants is to raise his daughters, he doesn’t care where. And even though he maintains his innocence, I doubt he’d do much differently in hindsight.
He’s a proud man, as he should be. I know that he, like myself, doesn’t find fault in himself, but in the system. I alternate between feeling that the police, the courts and the systems behind them are too thick to understand who Jay is and what he was trying to do; and conversely feeling like they knew exactly what Jay symbolized and that’s why they needed to put him away at all costs.
A strong Latino man who came from the bottom of the bottom and could unite street gangs into a political force, a man with a righteous disrespect for authority who could also pull together black preachers and a white Jewish kid from up North. That kind of unauthorized power is threatening, especially if one of its primary objectives is challenging abusive police and morally bankrupt politicians, whose power he routinely didn’t recognize.
It’s hard then, to explain why I still have hope. I guess it’s because there is no alternative.
In Jay’s latest email, from just a few days ago, he expressed hope too, as he did when I visited him. He has an appeal coming up on Jan. 29 in Richmond, Va. and he has a strong case.
“Less than 25 percent of cases get oral arguments and go to direct appeal,” he wrote to me via CorrLinks. That alone is a good sign, and we’re hoping that the worst-case scenario is a new trial. Best case is that he walks.
There’s even a plan for when Jay is set free: I’ll drive up there with a few of our mutual friends and pick him up, but we won’t tell his girls that he’s out. He wants to surprise them, maybe standing outside of school when they’re let out for the day or knocking on their mom’s door unexpectedly.
I’ve started to have those dreams again about him walking free, and this time they feel a little different. Closer.
I don’t have a sixth sense about it, like some people do in their knees when rain is coming. But Jay does, exuding confidence about the inevitability of his early release and a modicum of vindication in this nightmare. And just like it’s always been, it is his strength that sustains me and not the other way around.