Saturday, September 20, 2008

Troubled past haunts model citizen (Appeal-Democrat)

Troubled past haunts model citizen
Yuba knifing in 1974 may lead to deportation of man, 71

September 20, 2008 12:09:00 AM
By Rob Young/Appeal-Democrat

A Yuba County judge, two former probation agents and members of a Jewish synagogue all agreed Friday: If ever a felon has truly been rehabilitated, it's 71-year-old Espiridion Escalante.

But, snared by a tough immigration law passed 16 years after his crime, Escalante is facing possible deportation to Mexico by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security.

Since being paroled in 1976, Escalante has been a model citizen, according to court documents. He married a U.S. citizen and raised two children who are now college graduates. For 32 years he's held the same job as maintenance man for Congregation Beth Shalom, a Jewish synagogue in Modesto, while also working as a machine operator in a cannery.

No one says Escalante's crime was not a serious one — a very serious one. He was charged with attempted murder for slashing Maria Bazurto with a knife, although a Yuba County jury convicted him only of assault with a deadly weapon. He served a total of 674 days in jail and prison.

In a tattered court file from 1974, black and white photos show Bazurto with stitches across her forehead and a large bandage on her right cheek.

When Judge Debra Givens resentenced Escalante on Friday, effectively reducing his felony conviction to a misdemeanor, Bazurto was not in the courtroom. No one knows where she is or even whether she is still alive, said Deputy District Attorney Melanie Bendorf.

Givens sentenced Escalante to time served and placed him on probation — then immediately terminated it. She hopes her action will help halt deportation proceedings that Escalante is appealing.

Givens called her action "the only way justice can be served." To do otherwise would be telling Escalante that he hasn't done enough to rehabilitate himself when, in reality, he is the best possible example for prison parolees, she said.

Alcohol was a factor in the attack on Bazurto. Escalante stopped drinking soon after, former probation officer Lynn Bettencourt told the judge.

"At the time of the crime, deportation may have been a reasonable outcome, but today it is not," Bettencourt wrote in a defense report.

In the years following his release from prison, Escalante regularly visited Mexico to visit relatives, re-entering the U.S. without a problem. But on Jan. 12, 2004, customs officials at George Bush International Airport in Houston challenged him based on the 20-year-old felony conviction.

Escalante, a legal permanent resident of the U.S. since 1968, had been snared by a 1990 law requiring deportation of noncitizens convicted of felonies. The law is retroactive, said Bendorf.

The same law disallows judicial recommendations against deportation, Bendorf said in an interview.

Givens said her ruling includes such a recommendation.

Bendorf said Escalante has paid his debt to society and "has no doubt been rehabilitated."

"That being said, I don't believe this court can contravene federal immigration law," she told the judge.

The federal law "is not necessarily correct, but that's the state of the law," Bendorf said.

When asked by Givens if she thought Escalante should be deported, Bendorf's answer was no.

Escalante's attorney, Justin Scott, said the court is "perhaps breaking new ground here." But not taking Escalante's 32-year record of exemplary living into account does not make sense, he said.

"This case cries out for an unusual disposition," Scott said.

Escalante supporters sent 28 letters to Givens, including one from Joyce M. Gandelman, vice president of Congregation Beth Shalom. She wrote that Escalante is like a member of the temple despite not being Jewish. Deporting him would be "a tragedy," she said.

A petition supporting Escalante was signed by 248 Modesto residents and submitted to Givens.

Escalante, who speaks little English, was accompanied in court by his wife and two grown children — a daughter who teaches elementary school and a son who manages a Modesto auto parts store. All declined comment.

No comments: