The Des Moines Register article quoted Bennett as saying that he had no option but to agree to plea deals that called for him to imprison 57 immigrants for five months and deport them afterwards. That punishment deprived needy families of their breadwinners and drove them deeper into poverty and despair.
“I Ask That You Deport Us As Soon As Possible”
“My family is worried in Guatemala,” one defendant, Erick Tajtaj, entreated Bennett. “I ask that you deport us as soon as possible, that you do us that kindness so we can be together again with our families.”
Bennett did not comply with the man’s request. “My hands were tied by the Department of Justice,” he explained to Luis Argueta, the filmmaker who interviewed him.
The judge noted that court hearings in which 57 people in a row “don’t have even a single misdemeanor among them” is unheard of in federal court. “If anybody deserved mercy and compassion and fairness and justice, these 57 did. And I don’t believe they received it, even though I was the one who imposed the sentence,” Bennett said regretfully.
He added that the prosecutors were out of line in pushing immigrant workers to sign binding plea agreements that included prison time. “I thought their insisting on each of the defendants serving a five-month sentence was a tragedy,” he said.
“But it’s an executive branch decision, and I didn’t have the power to do anything about it other than not agree to the plea agreement. But if I did that, they would have been held in custody much longer.”
Prosecutors threatened immigrants who did not agree to the plea deal with aggravated identity theft – charges that carry a mandatory minimum 2-year jail sentence. Virtually all the immigrants succumbed to the threats and agreed to a five-month jail sentence followed by deportation.
In his comments to the filmmaker, Bennett said he found the plea deals “offensive, professionally and personally.” Being co-opted into agreeing to them appeared to still haunt him.
“I thought it was a travesty. And I was embarrassed to be a United States District Court judge that day,” he said.
Defense lawyers and immigrant advocates have long contended that the Guatemalan and Mexican workers were unfairly pressured into waiving their rights to a trial and pleading guilty to criminal charges in mass hearings a few days after the raid.
After other such raids across the country, most illegal immigrants without previous criminal records were quickly deported. But after the Postville raid, most workers were charged with felonies and served five months in prison before being sent home.
Government’s Game Plan
Critics say the prosecutors used the forced plea deals to coerce the immigrants into testifying in court against other defendants, including Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin.
For the plea deal to be ratified, the immigrants had to pledge to cooperate with the government investigation in any way required of them. The five-month incarceration period served the government’s scheme of keeping a pool of witnesses on hand to testify in the trials that were being planned ahead of the raid, critics said.
In return for “cooperating,” the witnesses were promised shortened sentences. Had the illegal workers been immediately deported, both the government and the state would have been severely hampered in building its case against Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin.
[This was the case in the state labor trial, in which Sholom Mordechai was charged with knowingly hiring minors. Since all the supposed “minors” had been deported, authorities were forced, at great expense, to travel to Guatemala and Mexico and lure them back to Iowa with promises of U-visas, so they could testify against their former employer.]
I felt I Was “Witnessing The Birth Of A Totalitarian State”
The government received heavy flak afterwards for the brutal tactics carried out in the ICE action, for rampant human rights violations and the trampling of due process in the criminal proceedings that followed.
Civil rights groups, immigration advocates and defense lawyers cried out about justice run amok and demanded an investigation by the Department of Justice.
One observer at the criminal proceedings at which 17 defendants were assigned to a single lawyer and hundreds of cases were fast-tracked according to pre-scripted plea deals said he felt he “was witnessing the birth of a totalitarian state.”
“Through the unjust criminal prosecutions and their aftermath, ICE, along with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, overwhelmed and co-opted the Court, judges, community, defense attorneys, interpreters, and other personnel “into railroading justice,” an article in the Washington College of Law journal said.
Others felt the Court, far from being “co-opted,” was in fact orchestrating things behind the scenes.
“The Court Was Driving The Train…”
“The Iowa federal district court [Judge Linda Reade] was driving the train, fatally compromising its own integrity as an independent branch of government,” wrote American Immigration Lawyers Association [AILA] President Charles Kuck.
[AILA wrote this long before the discovery of ICE documents that described in detail a pattern of close collaboration and information-sharing between federal prosecutors and Judge Reade.]
“The tracks laid down to carry this new ‘enforcement train’ were designed to force rapid guilty pleas under the threat of serious jail time, avoid the inconvenience of trials, limit access to immigration counsel, eliminate the prospect of all future relief, and impose criminal sentences simultaneously,” the AILA attorney said.
The ACLU, which vigorously protested the government’s tactics, obtained the pre-scripted plea bargain handbooks presented by the court clerk to defense lawyers in a secret “orientation meeting,” and posted them on its website. They can be reviewed today – case studies in legalized blackmail.
One criminal defense lawyer describes them as a handbook for “How-To-Get-Your-Client-Jailed-And-Deported-In-A-Few-Easy-Steps.”
Official Spin Won The Day
The protests did succeed in empanelling a congressional subcommittee to delve into the details of the government’s tactics and policies in the raid, which kept the issue in the headlines for a time.
But the official spin on the story won the day. Federal authorities in Washington testifying at the hearing portrayed the operation as compassionate and humane. They denied all allegations of verbal and physical abuse, as well as all charges of civil rights violations. With hundreds of immigrants jailed or deported and unavailable for interviews, the protests and clamor gradually died down.
Even the documentary’s electrifying interview with Judge Bennett, who denounced the legal proceedings as a “travesty,” received scant attention.
How strange, then, to witness the sudden media fanfare over Judge Bennett’s scathing remarks that were uttered a year ago when the film was first launched. How did this become a fresh headline in the Des Moines Register and in a rash of other papers, as if Bennett had just spoken up? Who or what is behind this renewed interest in the case?
“The dynamics of this case are changing,” ACLU legal director Randall Wilson said in an interview with the Yated. “The FOIA documents that revealed all these secret communications need to be studied. We need more information. The public – and especially the defendant – are entitled to it.”
The same article that quotes Bennett levels criticism at the Iowa Attorney’s Office, with “honorable mention” given to Stephanie Rose, who at the time of the raid was the lead prosecutor.
Revisiting the subject of Stephanie Rose recalls the absurd denials from her spokesmen that she had a leadership role in the raid and its aftermath. The ICE raid was planned by federal authorities in Washington, Iowa Senator Harkin said at the time. Rose was too busy to be involved. She was “engaged at the time in a high profile drug-related prosecution.”
Rose was Chief Deputy of the Criminal Division, third in the chain of command in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Is it plausible that she was unaware and uninvolved in the biggest law enforcement operation in Iowa’s history?
Speaking Truth To Power
To criminal defense attorneys summoned the day of the raid to the secret orientation meeting led by Rose, it certainly appeared as if the Chief Deputy of the Criminal Division was running the show. Testimony presented to the Congressional Hearing by attorney Rockne Cole attests to her central role.
An Iowa City lawyer who found the process repellent and walked out in the middle, Cole subsequently penned a letter describing Rose’s pivotal role together with that of Linda Reade in the Postville prosecution plan. His letter, addressed to Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, who chaired the 2008 Congressional committee, was read at the hearing.
Cole’s words, frozen in time, describe the legal maneuvers by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the facade of propriety that put into place what Bennett later slammed as a travesty of justice. At the time, Cole’s audacity in speaking truth to power turned him into a pariah in some circles.
Various parts of his testimony have been quoted in the three amicus curiae briefs filed by legal advocacy organizations supporting Sholom Mordechai’s appeal.
“In spite of the financial repercussion for taking this position, I simply could not stay silent on this issue,” Cole wrote. “From what I can infer, Judge Reade and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, coordinated the mass detention, roundup, representation plan, plea deals, and sentencing prior to one single attorney consulting with a client.
“I hope I am wrong, but the overwhelming facts suggest a breathtaking level of coordination between the United States District Court Judge (Reade) and the Department of Justice.
“I nevertheless strongly encourage the committee to keep an open mind, and afford all officials involved a fair hearing, which unfortunately was not given to the defendants in Postville.”
Whether the officials who deprived so many others of a fair hearing are entitled to one is open to discussion. One thing, however, is clear. The ugly stain on the country’s justice system from the Postville travesty will never be fully eradicated. Despite this, one hopes that when the government’s scapegoat, Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, now languishing in prison, is finally granted a fair hearing, justice will prevail.