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Mass Incarceration — This Is How It Works: 900 Days In Jail — But He Committed No Crime

He's a witness in a murder case and has been rotting in jail while the state gets all its ducks in a row

Benito Vasquez-Hernandez
Benito Vasquez-Hernandez
By Emily E. Smith
Benito Vasquez-Hernandez has orange canvas slip-ons, a single spoon, a wristband he wears at all times. He has little else.

He lives in a small cell with a single window high above his head and sleeps on a skinny mattress resting on a cinderblock frame.

Vasquez-Hernandez is treated like any other inmate in the Washington County Jail. But he's unlike every other inmate there.

At 897 days and counting, the 58-year-old may be the longest-held material witness in Oregon and perhaps the nation. He's waiting to testify in a murder case.

Legal experts are aware of no other witness jailed for so long. While no one appears to systematically track such cases, a law professor recalls only one similar instance - more than a century ago, in California.

In Oregon, a judge can keep material witnesses in custody until they testify, or release them pending trial. Under state law, material witness holds have no expiration, but detention typically lasts less than a week.

Civil rights advocates say a witness should never be locked up for long - certainly not more than two years. But it's not only the extraordinary length of Vasquez-Hernandez's imprisonment that disturbs them.

It's also his staggering disadvantages. He's poor. He's had no formal education and can't read or write. He's an immigrant who doesn't understand the American justice system. He's had no contact with his family.

As his days in custody have turned into months and then years, prosecutors have successfully argued that Vasquez-Hernandez's testimony is essential to their case and that he probably wouldn't show up to court if released.

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