© Jack Cashill
This December marks the 15th consecutive Christmas Steven Nary will have spent in the bowels of the California Correctional system. The state has guaranteed him no less than three more and possibly as many more Christmases as there are years in his life—all of this for a “crime” that would not have even come to trial in most American cities.
Nary’s journey to hell began in San Francisco in the early morning hours of March 24, 1996. As it happens, this was 65 years to the day after the famed Scottsboro Boys began a similar journey. And although the good citizens of San Francisco are surely appalled at the fate that awaited these nine young black men, the Scottsboro Boys had more access to justice in 1931 Alabama than Nary would in 1996 San Francisco.
Indeed, within eighteen months of their arrest for raping two white women, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the convictions of the Scottsboro Boys. And as hard as the state of Alabama tried to undo the reversal, its attorneys had to contend with the legal apparatus of the Federal government and worldwide media resistance. By contrast, Steven Nary remains largely unseen and unsung in the dusty confines of Avenal State Prison, three hours from nowhere in the middle of California’s charmless inland empire.
Nary has been in a California prison every single day of his life since March 1996. The reason why is hard to believe. As an 18-year old sailor on leave in San Francisco, Nary was lured from a co-ed dance club to the apartment of a gay predator, 53 year-old Juan Pifarre, under false pretenses.
Nary’s memory on what happened chez Pifarre has always been imperfect. He wrote to me from prison about Pifarre’s attempt to rape him.
Nary had no idea he was describing the precise reaction of a person who had been slipped a date rape drug, then all the rage among sexual predators. Nary’s public defender did not even raise the possibility at the trial.
"Please, stop," the lanky, 18-year-old sailor begged as he struggled through a paralyzing stupor. Pifarre would not. Finally, in desperation, Nary grabbed a glass mug by Pifarre's bedside and smacked the chunky, coked-up Pifarre in the head with it. Pifarre fought back.
Nary had never before been in a fight. But this time he was fighting for his life. When he finally subdued Pifarre, he grabbed his clothes and fled back through the deserted streets to the naval base.
Back at the ship, Nary told the chaplain, but he had no idea that San Francisco had morphed into a latter-day Scottsboro. This being a Clinton re-election year, the politically sensitive Navy washed its hands of the young sailor in unseemly and likely illegal haste and turned him over to San Francisco authorities.
“I felt my life was over, nonexistent,” Nary tells me of that period. “I was a 18-year-old kid who was scared, alone, and hopeless. I had no contact with my parents or anyone else. The military at the time just abandoned me.”
As to Pifarre, not only was he gay in America’s gayest city, but he was also among the most influential movers and shakers in the Hispanic community. As publisher of Horizantes, a Spanish language paper, he had real presence in the Latino community and serious pull at City Hall.
That Pifarre had secured his residency through a fraudulent marriage only burnished his star in a soon-to-be sanctuary city for illegal immigrants. That he had several priors for sexual assault and exposure, a history of violent sexual encounters, and a cocaine jones seemed to many altogether normative.
In 2009, Nary came up for parole for the first time. In reading the hearing transcript, I sensed the depth of the injustice about to unfold when San Francisco Deputy District Attorney, Nancy Tung, described Nary’s “victim.”
Pifarre, Tung testified under oath, “was an Argentinean immigrant . . . an advocate in the San Francisco community for the Latino community . . . an advocate for low income and impoverished people and also for immigrants, populations that don’t often have a voice . . . and yes, he was gay.”
Although generally fair, the presiding commissioner Jack Garner has apparently lived in California too long. After Nary confessed that he had frequented prostitutes as an 18 year-old sailor, Garner asked, “On the morality scale . . . what was so different about the situation with Juan that caused you to do what you did?”
Nary’s appointed attorney, Gertrude Akpenyi, should have jumped up and shouted, “Outside of San Francisco, there is still a qualitative difference between soliciting a female prostitute and being anally raped by a lying, coke-crazed fat man, even if he is an advocate for the poor.”
In his favor, Nary had some two-dozen letters of support, offers of jobs and places to live. His psychiatric report noted “low risk for violence in the free community” and was among the best anyone had seen. Nary had converted to Catholicism years ago, helped facilitate spiritual programs and tutor other prisoners. He had all but completed his AA degree from Coastline College, had gotten five certificates from Microsoft, and had “laudatory” marks in program after program.
“He’s a model inmate,” said Akpenyi in conclusion. “He has proved that the rehabilitation system really does work.”
“I don’t know when you had time to sleep,” said Deputy Commissioner Diane Lushbough to Nary. “You’ve done an awful lot. I want to just acknowledge that.”
None of this interested Tung. She had studied the case in depth and driven the 200 miles from San Francisco to Avenal State prison explicitly to retry the defenseless Nary. At the beginning of the hearing, in fact, Tung presented grisly crime scene photos that took everyone by surprise. “I’m wondering why the DA has submitted this,” Akpenyi asked the equally confused commissioners.
Tung conceded that Nary had been hopelessly drunk, that Pifarre had lured him to his apartment under false pretenses, and that a sleepy Nary had pleaded with Pifarre to stop trying to penetrate him from behind.
“The victim was helpless,” said Tung not of Nary, but of Pifarre, a man his friends admitted at trial could be ferocious when high and had engaged in any number of violent encounters. Pifarre came after Nary with a towel rod. Nary wrested it away from him and jabbed him with it. When Nary slipped, Pifarre tried to gouge his eyes out, and Nary responded by choking him, likely to death.
Only In San Francisco, only with a gay and/or minority “victim,” only with a male defendant, could choking a rapist pass for “Murder in the Second Degree with Use of a Weapon.” The “weapon” was the towel rod.
In their questioning, both Tung and Garner seemed bewildered that anyone would find homosexual advances troubling. Asked Tung, “Did this murder happen because of your temper?” In their questioning, she and Garner implied that Nary should have asked Pifarre to cry “uncle” once subdued and let him be.
Despite the absurd questions, Nary was incapable of defending himself: he was there to prove his very genuine remorse. As a serious Christian, he had come to understand that his behavior leading up to that night was “sinful,” a word the commissioners had not likely heard very often.
“I felt no real purpose,” said Nary of that time in his life. He then proceeded to deliver a discourse on a young life gone awry too comprehensive and profound for the commissioners to understand even if they had wanted to. “Every inch of my body, mind, and soul cries out for forgiveness,” said Nary.
In a state where interest group dynamics trump individual justice, Nary never had a chance. “The panel feels that you haven’t fully explored the totality and magnitude of this commitment offense,” said Garner at hearing’s end.
“You’re unsuitable for parole because you remain a present and unreasonable risk of danger if released and require an additional five years of incarceration.”
For the first ten years of his incarceration, Nary’s story had been kept alive by a handful of stalwart supporters with no media access. I discovered the story in researching my 2007 book, What’s the Matter with California, and Nary picked up more support, including the pro-bono legal work of a top-flight attorney, Steven Gruel. While Gruel continues to appeal Nary’s parole denial, there is no chance that the outgoing governor could pardon Nary even if he wanted to.
What Nary needs now is serious media exposure—a 60 Minutes, for example--but in trying to gain attention for Nary’s case, I have run into a crippling anxiety at all levels about offending gay sensibilities.
I sometimes wonder--do our media think so little of the gay community to believe its members would want an innocent young man to remain in prison for the rest of his life? From my experience, it certainly seems so.
Author’s note: In a letter I received from Steven today, he writes, “What’s important in my life is God and the relationships I have. Everything else comes to me as a comfort.”
Steven can be reached at:
Steven Nary, P-61614
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