Reflections from Rusty: The Man Who Won His Freedom from 3 Life Sentences “Never Give Up, and You are the Best Advocate For Your Loved One!”

Rusty and his mom hugging as he leaves jail, a free man after having served four years of what would have been 3 life sentence.

Rusty and his mom hugging as he leaves jail, a free man after having served four years of what would have been 3 life sentence.

To everyone at De-Bug, and all families who are fighting within our court systems: I saw this posting of my plight, as well as the plight of all those who fought along side me, and I was very touched. It was a very difficult battle, one that I almost gave up on many times over, but that is NEVER THE ANSWER! No matter how overwhelming the challenge may seem. This goes for ALL involved. Some will fall by the wayside, but this is inevitable, and cannot be a deterrent. I asked my mother for permission to leave this life, for I felt defeated, but she, as well as others, such as my daughter, step son, attorney, brothers, and Raj, from De Bug, reignighted my will to fight for my life, and for me to lead by example.

My attorney Jessica Burt-Smith and I buckled down and collaborated on EVERYTHING making sure that we fought with everything we could, despite the Court’s many efforts to shut us down. We still lost in trial, and it was devastating! I stood up and yelled at the jury and District Attorney: “YOU JUST STOLE MY LIFE; YOU GOT IT WRONG!”

Again, I felt defeated and wanted to give up. I was sentenced to 3 Life sentences, plus 34 years, for a total term of 109 years to life. I also received divorce papers at the same time. I lost everything, and another fight to overcome all of this seemed impossible. My attorney looked me in the eyes with tears in hers, and told me not to give up, that the fight was not over, that there was still my appeal. I did not believe in the system, for I had just been falsely convicted, so I certainly did not have faith in any appeal. Continue reading

MUSIC VIDEO: No ICE Collaboration with County Jails

Santa Clara County has long been a national leader in creating a safe community for immigrants by drawing a clear line between ICE and the law enforcement and promoting meaningful immigrant integration. Now our county elected officials want to revisit the possibility of entangling ICE with local law enforcement, creating a less safe community for all. Community groups and leaders led an action this month to urge the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to reject PEP COMM and not allow ICE to dictate our county’s criminal justice system. (The below music video was projected on a wall in the County building as part of an action by the FIRE coalition.)

Rusty, His Mom, and His Public Defender > Life in Prison

Santa Clara County Public Defender Jessica Smith, leaving court with Rusty's mom after freeing him from a life sentence. Together, they walked straight to the jail to see when he was getting out later that day.

Santa Clara County Public Defender Jessica Smith, leaving court with Rusty’s mom after freeing him from a life sentence. Together, they walked straight to the jail to see when he was getting out later that day.

Around four years ago, a couple of us from De-Bug walked into the public defender’s office around 10pm to turn in one of the first social bio videos we ever made. It was a life case. Court was the next day, and we had asked the public defender, Jessica, when was the latest we could turn it in to her that evening. She said she would be working late, likely throughout the night, so not to worry. Despite the universe seeming determination to send her client Rusty to prison for life — Jessica was going to fight with everything she had, with every second she could.

We had visited Rusty in jail before — he was as charismatic and likable as the various people who came to our participatory defense meetings said he would be. That phrase, “you just have to meet him” comes up often at our meetings with families, but the truth is, it is always been a useful instruction for us to follow. We also go to know Rusty by interviewing the people who loved him. Rusty grew up in rural Idaho, which also led to some challenges on how to capture important family voices for his video, since they lived thousands of miles away. Some of the family, including his mother, actually recorded their interview from her ranch in Idaho, responding to question we gave them through phone and email.  Continue reading

Family Prevents 15 Year Prison Sentence Through Social Biography Packet

Submission by Cecilia Chavez

The author, Cecilia, facilitating a skye training on how to build social biography packets.

The author, Cecilia, facilitating a skype training on how to build social biography packets.

I met Jose (name changed) five months ago. He came into De-Bug with his mom who had worked with us previously in another one of her son’s case. Jose, who was 19 and undocumented, was facing serious charges — up to 15 years of incarceration for an alleged incident that was not a reflection of who he was as a young man. Days previous to the alleged incident he had gone through some traumatic experiences with his stepfather and on top of that was mourning the death of his biological father in Mexico. When the family came to our participatory defense meeting, they were prepared and brought supporting information to help counteract the picture that had been painted of Jose by the police reports. Shortly after, we sat down with his attorney and started collecting more social biographical information such as character references, proof of enrollment in programs that were helping him deal with is trauma, and  other material that could support his case. With all this, I helped the family build a social biography packet that was used by his public defender when they negotiated with the prosecutor. Continue reading

Participatory Defense and Struggle for Criminal Justice Reform in Albany Law Review

Special thanks to Andrew Davies and the people at Albany Law Review for publishing our co-authored piece for their law journal entitled, “Make Them Hear You: Participatory Defense and the Struggle for Criminal Justice Reform.” It was humbling and inspiring to share our story of families finding innovative and powerful ways to fight for their lived ones freedom in the context of the research and history articulated by our co-authors Janet Moore of University of Cincinnati Law School and Marla Sandys of Indiana University. Janet and Marla hung out with us too when we were building with our partners in Lexington, Kentucky.

And here is a photo of Becky and Gail, two pioneering moms and participatory defense organizers holding up the recently released Albany Law Review at our headquarters at Silicon Valley De-Bug. In the background our weekly participatory defense meeting is starting up, with Cecy facilitating. It is a meeting Gail and Becky helped start years ago as they both fought for their own sons freedom. Now they facilitate weekly participatory defense meetings for other families. And hopefully, a path that they carved out so naturally, may pave a way for other communities to also know how they can impact the court system. Because while it is an honor for our approach to enter the discourse of legal scholars and law schools, and hope that it helps recalibrate the legal field to be more inclusive in its search for justice, ultimately this work is still about what it started as — families sitting around a table seeing how they can bring their collective power, intelligence, and community resources to change the imbalance in the court system and free their loved ones. Just like how Becky and Gail taught us to do.


What Happens After Sentencing? A Road Map for Appeals and Post-Conviction Advocacy

A long-time De-Bug friend with extensive experience in state and federal criminal appeals and collateral post-conviction advocacy came and gave an incredible workshop to families whose loved ones are just starting that journey. The session was part of our Participatory Defense Training Series for families whose loved ones are entangled in the criminal justice system. At ACJP, we know that just because a judge delivers a sentence, doesn’t mean families give up. And we have been fortunate to have witnessed families welcome loved ones home after they have won an appeal. But navigating what happens after a sentence is rendered can be a confusing maze. And after direct appeals, people incarcerated and their loved ones are often left alone without counsel. Just like at the trial stage, families, and their application of participatory defense principles, can impact the outcome of cases if they are informed more about the process. So below is a road map of what happens after sentencing given by our appeal expert friend and shared at the workshop. It details what options people have after sentencing, a description of what happens at that stage, applicable case law, and what can help towards relief. Below that are a few legislative updates to be aware of, and at the bottom are forms for 1) California Notice of Appeal in a Felony 2) California Petition for Habeas Corpus 3) Federal Habeas Corpus Petition

Good luck!
(Note: This is California specific)

Family members attend workshop on appeals to see how they can assist their loved ones.

Family members attend workshop at De-Bug Center on appeals to see how they can assist their loved ones.

Continue reading

Time Magazine Feature on Participatory Defense

Special thanks to Time Ideas for running Raj Jayadev’s piece on participatory defense! An excerpt is below, and link to full article…

At the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project, we encourage families to join their loved ones’ defense team

A family works with Charisse of ACJp to create a Social Biography packet to be used by the defense attorney in negotiation with the prosecutor.

A family works with Charisse of ACJP to create a Social Biography Packet to be used by the defense attorney in negotiation with the prosecutor.

While police in the streets or inhumane conditions in the prisons have been focuses of social justice movements, the machinery between arrest and incarceration — the courts — have remained a social justice blind spot. In San Jose, California, where I’m from, families have started use the science of community organizing to penetrate the court system. Families who have loved ones facing charges meet on a weekly basis; support each other; and share knowledge about what helps defense attorneys and what sways judges and juries. They form a network behind the person who has been arrested. (Click here to go to full article on

Photo Recap: Training Social Bio Videos and Participatory Defense in Russia

ACJP/De-Bug had the honor of traveling to Moscow to give trainings on how to create social biography videos and participatory defense. The training was convened and hosted by the Public Verdict Foundation, a leading Moscow based human rights organization that provides policy research, legal aid, and support for victims of torture and other violations of human rights across the country. Roughly another dozen other partner organizations attended as well. While certainly the political and system context was very different then what we have seen and experienced here in the US, the notion of how individuals and communities can fight for justice remains a global principle. We had the great fortune to connect, train, and build with some of the leading human rights and legal advocates across the country. Below are some snapshots of our training, which was composed of sharing our methodologies from here, and seeing how it relates, or could supplement the amazing work being done in Russia. Just like our trainings in the US, participants produced social biography videos based on a mock case study. We learned so much from our trip, and as these these often do, the experience inspired and refined our thinking about our work in the US. Spasibo! (thank you!)

Social bio video trainers Jean and Fernando on the first day we arrived in Moscow.

Social bio video trainers Jean and Fernando on the first day we arrived in Moscow.

Continue reading

A Public Defender Reflects on the Power and Responsibility of Trust

By Sajid Khan (This piece originally ran on the National Association of Public Defense)

Santa Clara County Public Defender Sajid Khan writes a compelling reflection on his experiences in relationship to those he represents in court, and the significance of a rarely discussed, yet fundamentally important, value: trust. 

Sajid Khan

Sajid Khan

The client had been assigned to me for six weeks but I hadn’t met him yet. He didn’t return my calls and I wasn’t sure if his phone was operable. I reviewed the police reports, the preliminary hearing transcript, the notes of the attorneys that preceded me. I knew his case but didn’t know him, yet. His trial date arrived and we were on the cusp of a blind date; he the accused, I his public defender. I called out his name in the bustling Santa Clara County courtroom, he raised his hand and I finally put a face to the name on the file that had occupied a piece of my office for the past several weeks. We escaped into a court interview room and I introduced myself to this man, over 10 years my senior. We discussed his background, his current circumstances, the charges against him and his options. He told me about his job, family and health issues. He hesitated to talk about the case and was defensive about the charges; I sensed embarrassment and shame in his voice. As we talked about potential outcomes, I felt his fear and trepidation of losing his job, his liberty.

Another morning, I strolled into my office to find a new file, a new client, in my mailbox. I opened it to see a face sheet littered with over a dozen serious felony charges, each allegation more grave than the next. I studied the witness statements, photographs and audio recordings that filled the file. It was clear: if this client was convicted as charged, he would spend his life in prison. Days later, I went to see him at the jail where he was held without bail. He, nearly 10 years my junior, was escorted into the interview room by a correctional officer and locked to his seat. He struggled to lift his hand, chained to his waist, to shake mine. We conversed about his upbringing, his mental health issues, how he was doing in custody. The conversation eventually turned to the charges and his exposure to a potential life sentence. Suddenly, the tenor changed and he asked, “are you going to help save me from life in prison?” Continue reading

The Death of Kalief Browder Exposes the Lethality of the Court System

by Raj Jayadev (This piece originally ran in the Huffington Post)


Kalief Browder

To call the death of 22-year-old Kalief Browder a suicide is not the full truth. Kalief Browder may have hung himself, but he was killed by the brokenness of our court system.

The story of his short life, told by Jennifer Gonnerman in The New Yorker last year, chronicles the horrors of a 16-year-old who was charged for a stealing a backpack, sent to the isolation and brutality of Rikers Island prison for three years, only for the charge to eventually be dropped by the prosecutor. Follow up articles report that Kalief was so profoundly haunted from his mental and physical abuse inside that upon his release, he was hospitalized and told his mother, “I can’t take it anymore.” Ultimately, he hung himself with an air-conditioner cord at his home this June.

The ubiquity of his name online is a different sort of morbid hashtag. It seems social media adds a new name every week of an African-American killed by police, with a hashtag prefix added on. The names we are familiar with — #MichaelBrown, #TamirRice, #FreddieGray — point to obvious culprits and have fueled a new national movement for police accountability and reform. But the #KaliefBrowder name points to a less talked about, yet as his case shows, equally lethal injustice. Continue reading