Shame on San Francisco
© Jack Cashill
Steven Nary, now 32, just spent his 14th consecutive Christmas behind bars.
“If you want to see a place where Christmas is as non-existent as you can get, come to prison,” Steve wrote to me from California’s Avenal State Prison.
“There are no lights, no trees, no gifts, no nativity scenes, no family gatherings, and no signs that say ‘Merry Christmas.’”
How Steven came to spend Christmas at Avenal, alas, tells us all we need to know about the skewed sense of justice in progressive America.
In brief, as an 18-year old sailor in March 1996, Steven got drunk on shore leave in San Francisco and ended up at a co-ed dance club for the under-25 set.
There, a sexual predator with several priors offered him a ride back to the ship across the Bay Bridge, tricked him into coming to his apartment, likely drugged Steven, tried to rape him, refused Steven’s pleas to stop, and died in the fight that followed.
When I first learned about the case, I thought that if Steven were my son there is no way he would ever have been convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, even in San Francisco, even if the predator proved to be gay and a leading Hispanic activist.
In recent months, as I have come to understand Steven’s family history, I have seen how this tragedy unfolded, and it only reinforces my initial assessment of the trial.
Shame on San Francisco.
When Steven was born in Biloxi, Mississippi, his mom had just turned sixteen. In that time and place, men did the honorable thing: they married the mother of their child.
My sense is that Steven’s working class father did so grudgingly. He would always keep his son at arm’s length. Steven ran away from home at least once, and his father turned his back on him after Steven’s arrest.
The father did not tell his brothers about Steven’s predicament until after he was convicted. The brothers to this day fail to understand why the father behaved as he did. Had they known, they would have done everything they could have to help.
The Navy turned its back on Steven as well. This was 1996, an election year. Bill Clinton was in the White House. The “victim,” Juan Pifarre, was gay, ethnic, and politically wired. The city of San Francisco would name a building after him.
The “killer,” on the other hand, was white, poor, powerless, and alone. He made for an easy and nicely symbolic notch on a progressive prosecutor’s belt.
The judge set bail at $1 million. The figure shocked Steven’s public defender because, as the San Francisco Chronicle would report, “The suspect called police voluntarily and asked to be picked up.”
Besides, Steven had “defensive wounds,” and the bail for first time defendants in a passion crime almost never exceeded $250,000.
“I felt my life was over, nonexistent,” Steven told me. “I was an 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.”
Steven’s mom has recently tried to enlighten me as to what happened in those days before the trial. I use her own language not to embarrass her, but to suggest the unevenness of the conflict.
“I was told by the Navy and all these Lawyer that the worest could happen was involtary manslaughter,” she writes. When Steven’s attorney moved for a plea bargain, Steven dismissed him. He could not understand what he was guilty of.
His mom sensed the danger at hand. “We were told by many people that he would not get a fair trail and that they were going to send a message to the President and the Navy,” she adds.
“We asked for the trail to be moved but no they would not do this they had to make a statement.”
That they did. The prosecutors timed this appalling show trial for March 1999, just a week before the start of Russell Henderson’s trial in Laramie for the notorious murder of gay college student, Matthew Shepard.
Steven never stood a chance. On one occasion, members of the audience stood up and faced the jury wearing large bright orange lapel tags saying "Recuerda [Remember] Juan," "Stop Homophobia," and "Stop Immigrant Bashing."
“Where is that rage coming from?” the prosecutor asked the jury of Steven’s desperate struggle to stop from being raped.
The prosecutor then arbitrarily wrote the word “faggot” on a black board and insinuated that it was not the attempted rape but the military’s presumed anti-gay ethos that had stoked Steven’s rage.
Ill-educated and inarticulate, Steven was nonetheless made to stand as proxy for a presumably homophobic military establishment that had long since thrown him to the wolves.
“The day the verdit came in was a Mothers nighmare,” writes his mom. “I can’t say it is as bad as losing a son but not ever being able to see him again just was the end of all my hopes.”
After thirteen years in prison, Steven came up for parole this past June. In his favor, he had some two-dozen letters of support, offers of jobs and places to live. His psychiatric report was among the best anyone had seen.
He had all but completed his AA degree, had gotten five certificates from Microsoft, had “laudatory” marks in program after program, and had taught himself to write better than the average college senior.
“He’s a model inmate,” said the appointed attorney. “He has proved that the rehabilitation system really does work.”
“I don’t know when you had time to sleep,” said the deputy commissioner to Steven. “You’ve done an awful lot. I want to just acknowledge that.”
That much said, at the urging of San Francisco’s prosecutor, the parole board nixed his release for at least five more years: “The panel feels that you haven’t fully explored the totality and magnitude of this commitment offense.”
Shame on San Francisco.
Still, Steven remains undaunted, even at Christmas. “There may be no trees or decorations,” he wrote recently, “but there is paper and glue that can be turned into anything. This year I made a three foot Christmas tree with lights, bulbs, candy canes, and a star.”
He concluded, “I am grateful for all the wonderful people who have come, gone, and stayed in my life, and all have saved me with small and big gestures. To all Thank you and Merry Christmas!!”
Steven Nary can be reached at:
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