It Happened To Me: I Have Been in Prison For 6 Years

Ever since I was convicted of 14 crimes -- all white-collar-type financial offenses -- I've been living at the maximum-security York Correctional Institution.

Dec 5, 2012 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

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"I’m not really sure what’s going to happen today,” she said as she sat down in the chair next to mine. Not only did she look disorganized, she looked like a jerk. Runs racing up the nylons on her legs, an ill-fitting dress and pom-pom tennis socks overlaying the pantyhose.

A child-size Coach knockoff, the kind that has all of the Cs facing the wrong way, hung off her wrist. My parents’ retainer alone could have snagged her something authentic. What was wrong with her? I thought. Why did I hire her again?

Based on my attorney’s previous assurances that this would be an uneventful proceeding, I arrived early and alone to the courthouse that snowy Friday afternoon.

“What do you mean you’re not sure?” I asked, standing with her as the judicial marshal told us to rise at the judge’s entrance. She giggled.

After I was convicted of 14 crimes -- all white-collar-type financial offenses -- at trial in October that year, the judge originally scheduled my sentencing for December 7, 2007. Before that day, my new attorney, the one with the ripped “sun tan” pantyhose and the counterfeit Cs, had assured me that sentencing would not happen that day; it would be a hearing on securing me a new trial.

She was not prepared for sentencing, she told the court. We would have to set another date, she explained and went on to argue, unconvincingly, that the Honorable John F. Cronan should grant me a new trial.

The judge denied her motion. “We’re proceeding with sentencing today,” he announced flatly. 

No way, I thought, will he send me away when I have no family and friends to vouch for me and my lawyer plainly admits that she’s totally unprepared for sentencing. But he did. 

“I can’t believe this is happening to me!” she cried as she tried to stem the flood of tears from her eyes. She knew how badly she had screwed up. She also knew that eventually –- not then, because marshals were clicking cuffs around my wrists and taking me into custody -– either I or my parents would bust her ass for her ineffective assistance, either in a malpractice suit or a complaint to the ethics committee. 

“You can’t believe that it’s happening to you?” I asked her, incredulous.

Then I told the marshals: “My keys. My car keys. They’re in my pocket.” Marshals uncuffed one hand long enough for me to retrieve my keys and slide them across the table to my attorney. I haven’t seen those keys or my car in the years since -- I've been living at the maximum-security York Correctional Institution. 

The criminal justice system has its own purgatory. They call it “lock-up” and it’s the limbo area between freedom and prison. As one might expect, lock-up hangs below the courthouse. The marshals led me down, took off my shoes and rubbed all of my pockets in search of contraband before leaving me in an icy cell on a metal cot sans mattress to ask myself, “How the fuck did this happen?”

I wish my story were simpler and unfolded in three neat acts, devoid of unnecessary plot twists. Every time I described the last 6 years to anyone, his or her questions –- legitimate, justified inquiries -– seemed like exit ramps off one highway that spilled onto another faster, wider thruway; rather than release the questioner to a definable stop, the questions dragged them down another road of confusion.

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How this story was submitted to xoJane

I want to be able to condense everything into a life story like others; trees with branches that taper in diameter and end, an understandable whole of sensible growth. My history is a veiny map with termini outside the boundaries of the page. No one, including me, knows exactly how, where and when all of this will end.

It began with one arrest. Even a career criminal (the politically correct term is “recidivist”) has a first arrest. In some socioeconomic circles, the first arrest is an inevitable initiation like a Quinceanera party or losing one’s virginity. For me -– a Princeton graduate in graduate school at the time -– the arrest was not scheduled in my life’s trajectory, which is why my well-intended but very unwitting and highly emotional parents assumed my guilt.

They insisted that I be seen by a psychiatrist who immediately diagnosed me –- an erroneous determination –- with bipolar disorder. Everything popped off from there. I agreed to do whatever my parents and attorneys (only two parents but countless lawyers) wanted, submitting to testing by psychologists, couching it with shrinks, swallowing snaking lines of psychotropic medications, allowing literally any defense to be made.

Charges against me literally piled up. Between 2001 and 2005, I racked up at least 50 charges -- identity theft, larceny and forgery among them -- spread out over 9 arrests. With each new charge, I earned myself a new psychiatric diagnosis. Bipolar Disorder. Schizoaffective Disorder. Schizophrenia. Borderline Personality Disorder. Multiple Personality Disorder.

“I don’t remember doing this,” I explained to one attorney, a worthless employee of a white-shoe law firm headquartered in Manhattan. He told me it was okay, that my mind didn’t work, would never work again if I didn’t listen to him. I wanted to show him that my leg works just fine by kicking him square in the nuts, but I feared another charge.

As diagnoses escalated, more arrived, which invited more misdiagnoses and the extreme therapies that accompany them: pills, shots, electroshock therapy. The cure was surely worse than any disease; I couldn’t walk, even to leave my home to commit the crimes attributed to me.

The extremity of the treatment I received and the wild escalation of charges did me one favor, though. My flexibility -– the passivity and malleability that was supposed to grease my way out of this criminal insanity lost elasticity and eventually broke. I started fighting back.

I refused medication. I argued with attorneys. I turned down plea bargain agreements.

Most cases I won, but when it came time to ride or die on the charges in Derby, Connecticut, everyone wanted me to plead guilty under the Alford Doctrine, which means that the defendant does not admit guilt and live for 2 years with the prospect of 2 years in prison hanging over my head. 

“How could you turn down a chance to stay out of prison?!” people screamed at me. This time I chose the more difficult path out, which was paved with higher risk but also greater integrity. I tried my case, represented by an awful attorney –- not the knockoff nimrod, but one who spent my parents’ money on authentic handbags –- and I lost.

Although the police and the prosecutor claimed to have a mountain of evidence against me, the case against me was weak, particularly for paper trial cases. The trial exposed the police investigations as hardly complete.

For instance, for the charges of identity theft, larcenies and forgeries that were tried, someone placed orders on the phone and Internet unauthorized, with another party’s credit card account and used my address as a drop spot. As I did, you might expect that the police would, at a minimum, trace the telephone records of my phone or check the IP address of the computer that placed the orders, but they never did. 

Moreover, none of several attorneys, professionals who were ethically obligated to represent me with zeal and competence, tracked the origin of these orders as part of my defense. It was almost as if I wasn’t worth the time it took to dig up any evidence whatsoever, whether it was against me or exculpated me.

Even though I lost it, the trial vindicated me somewhat. The “biggie” accusation that went to trial was the attempted larceny of a $42,000,000 diamond necklace from one of my favorite stores and a merchant my family had patronized for years, Bergdorf Goodman.

Police claimed that I called up the store and tried to purchase the glittery collar (I hope it’s glittery because I’ve never seen it) with someone else’s credit card number -– a stranger’s account –- and requested that the precious gems be delivered to my home. No phone records connected me to this order.

The state claimed that I nabbed the stranger’s account number -– a Neiman Marcus card member -- because the stranger’s wife used another account, her American Express card at a store where I once worked, one year after I worked there. When a postal inspector tried to deliver a dummy package to me, his mission failed because I wouldn’t sign up for the package. To cover up their screw-up, the police pretended to have videotaped me signing for the parcels, a claim that the trial betrayed as false; they have video of me, just not forging anyone’s signature.

When I denied signing for the packages, everyone said my protestation was a delusion, that I was insane not to realize what I had done and paranoid to think the police would lie about having cinematic evidence of my mistake.

When everyone –- me, my counsel, the state’s attorney -– viewed the tape for the first time in front of a jury, a wry smile picked up the corners of my mouth because I finally had some proof that I had been right all along. 

The jury acquitted me of some of the lesser charges, like the minor attempted larcenies perpetuated against Amazon.com, where the perp ordered a legal treatise on warrantless searches, along with Amber Frey’s memoir about her affair with Scott Peterson who currently sits on death row in California for killing his pregnant wife, Lacey. I can’t stand Amber Frey, never could. I wouldn’t read her memoir with someone else’s eyes much less boost her sales by purchasing it with someone else’s credit card and subject myself to criminal penalties.

All of this evidence or lack thereof will be reheard in February when a court hears my petition for a writ of habeas corpus for ineffective assistance of counsel. But my second chance took its time arriving, years.

During that time, the crimes continued as I was incarcerated. More illegal packages arrived on my parents’ doorstep. A repo man knocked on the door to take a Range Rover that no one at the address ever owned, ever drove, ever saw. Fraudulent tax returns summoned refund checks to my former mailbox, checks that were snatched by someone who is not me. An investigation ensued, but I doubt the inspectors’ efforts will overtake the guilty party.

One assignment in my prison writing group, a class taught by none other than award-winning novelist Wally Lamb, was to write a 6-word memoir. I can barely fit my story into 6,000 words; cramming my life into a literary 6-pack would cause the cans to explode all over me but I tried it. Arrest. Crazy. Again. Crazier. Prison. _______. 

The sixth word has yet to spell itself out. 

I’m not sure what will happen today, or when or how I will discharge from this penitentiary, through a winning appeal or just running out of time. I don’t know what the sixth word of my truncated memoir will be, not exactly. Whatever it is, I am sure I can handle it. I have to.

Jane says everybody has at least one great It Happened to Me in them. Submit yours to pitches@xojane.com.