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Jack Smith

An English teacher's trials in life leave room to question the nature of justice

June 19, 1986|Jack Smith

Freda Smith, a young schoolteacher who lives in El Segundo, has a story that reminds me of "Les Miserables."

To tell it, unfortunately, I will have to trim her long though tersely written letter.

"I am furious," she begins.

First, her 1965 Mustang was stolen from the school she taught at in Watts. For $350 she bought a 1973 Toyota wagon so banged up that "no one--even in Watts--would want a car like that."

Among other things, the wiring was out of order, so that when the headlights were turned on, the backup lights went on.

When her husband was driving the car one night in Torrance he got a ticket because the backup lights were on. All he had to do was get the wiring fixed and send the proof to court.

Smith tried to fix the wiring but gave up. He simply disconnected the backup lights. Mrs. Smith called the court and got two postponements on the ticket.

"Before the second date the car just gave up the ghost, absolutely and irrevocably."

The ticket seemed irrelevant, "although in the back of each of our minds was the knowledge that we should let the court know of this latest development."

Then the mail brought a notice that a warrant had been issued for Smith's arrest. All they had to do was pay $171.

Meanwhile the stolen Mustang was recovered. They had to pay $200 to get it out of impound and towed home, and "a small fortune" to get it working again. They couldn't afford to pay the $171, so Smith avoided Torrance.

This went on for seven months.

One morning Smith drove his wife to her school and said he would pick her up at 3:30. At 3:30 she got a call from his employer saying that he had been arrested in Van Nuys on the warrant. They had sent someone to bail him out, but he was no longer there. He had been moved downtown.

"There I stood in the school office--frantic, terrified, not yet angry--with no car and our 3-month-old daughter at the sitter's."

She called the jail and was told her husband was there and could be released on payment of the $171. A fellow teacher drove her downtown. She couldn't get her husband out. He was still being processed. He would be in Torrance Court at 8:30 the next day. She didn't know where the car was.

Her friend took her to pick up the baby and drove them home. She was up at 5 a.m. "Shower, makeup, bottles for the baby, call school, pack diaper bag, get bank book and plenty of change for the bus. I can't use the carrier for the baby because it's in the car, wherever that is. I just have to carry her.

"We're off. Walk to the bus stop. Transfer. Transfer. Walk from Hawthorne Boulevard to the courthouse. Three long, long blocks. It's 8:30. No judge. I ask. Yes, his name is on the list. Can't see him. Can't pay. He has to see the judge.

"10 a.m. Ask again. He won't get to see the judge until at least 12:30. I can go to the bank. It's a long walk. My legs ache; my back and shoulders ache; my arms ache. I withdraw $300--all we have."

She walks back to the court, stopping in the mall to have a Coke and change a diaper. At noon she's back in court. A bailiff announces, "All cases continued until 2 o'clock."

She asks if she can sit in the back of the courtroom. No. Clear out. She sits on a bench in the hallway until 2 o'clock. The judge remains in his chambers. She waits. The baby begins to fuss. Finally, at 4:30, the judge. She can bail her husband out for one-third, or $57.

But the bailiff says Smith has to go back to Central Jail. He'll get credit for the time in jail, and she won't have to pay anything. He'll be released after the paper work is done.

" 'Can I talk to him?'

"My husband is standing in one of two lines of about half a dozen men dressed in blue coveralls and chained-- chained --together.

" 'No, you can't talk to him.'

" 'I don't know where the car is.'

"The bailiff to my husband: 'Where's the car?' "

Her husband mouthed the words. " 'In Van Nuys. Go home.'

"But he doesn't look angry. Oh, I love him so much!

"I start to leave. At the door, 'I love you!' He kisses me through the air, across all that space of courtroom. . . ."

That night she fell asleep watching TV, exhausted. At 12:30 a.m. her husband called. He should be getting out before long. They were calling a few names every few hours.

Mrs. Smith went to school and came home expecting to find her husband there. At 10:30 p.m. she called the jail again.

"He's still in the tank to get out," she was told.

And that's where it stood when she wrote her letter.

"In the courtroom a woman's son with bail set at $1,500 was released then and there on his own recognizance. And my husband was chained and kept in jail for three full days--so far--because the reverse lights on an old car weren't working properly and because of a $171 arrest warrant. Is that justice? Is that the Los Angeles criminal system?

"That is inhumane. I want my husband back and I want out of Los Angeles. . . ."

She teaches English. Writes it well, too.

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