A Minor Affair

When young love ended in a rape allegation, the juvenile justice system left a Dallas teen's life in limbo.

Hack, who has worked as an administrative law judge and says she helped pioneer the area of mediation in Dallas, fancies herself a "professional neutral and a white-hat attorney--you know, like a John Wayne cowboy," she says. And Hack wears a hat--not necessarily a white one--whenever she enters a courtroom.

Hack decided to become a lawyer after she was raped in her home in Chicago by a man who would go on to murder his next rape victim. The trial was an ugly ordeal for Hack, who decided the system needed to change. Ironically, after law school she assiduously avoided the field of criminal law because she did not think she could ever represent a client she knew was guilty of a violent crime.

When Gaither's court informed Hack she had been appointed to represent a juvenile accused of sexual assault, she wanted to withdraw from the case. Not only did it involve alleged violence against a female, but Hack admits she knows little about criminal law, especially as it applies to minors. But before Hack got a chance to withdraw, Lynell Pearl contacted her and poured out her desperate story.

"After we talked, I knew I had to take this case," Hack says. "The white hat in me came out after Mrs. Pearl convinced me Sheldon could not have done it. Everything she said was corroborated by Miss Haywood, who was a model of propriety and a very credible witness. I met Sheldon and he seemed honest and sincere. Everything seemed to fit. Then we figured out that the date the arrest report claimed the rape occurred, Sheldon wasn't even in town. (The charges against Sheldon would eventually read: "on or around November 18, 1995.")

"I figured I could just make the case go away quickly," says Hack.
Both families were summoned at the end of February to court for what they thought was another hearing in the rape case. But this hearing was in municipal court to set a trial date for the assault charges Rhonda filed against Sheldon and his father, and the assault charge they filed against her.

Prior to the hearing, the Pearls and Rhonda's father had met to try to work things out. Rhonda's father said he was upset that Sheldon had hit his daughter and the Pearls agreed that Sheldon was wrong. But they all decided that to go to trial on any of the charges would be detrimental to their children. Rhonda's father told the Observer that while she still maintains she'd been raped, his daughter didn't want to "put the boy in jail."

Sheldon and Rhonda arrived at court with signed statements saying they had agreed to drop charges against one another: Sheldon's assault charge against Rhonda, and her rape charge against him. Unfortunately, this was not proper procedure and, as far as the sexual assault case, it wasn't even the right court.

Hack had Rhonda's father call Assistant District Attorney Ramirez and inform Ramirez he and Rhonda wanted to drop the charges. She also had Haywood call and tell Ramirez that a sexual assault never occurred at her home. Hack says Ramirez thanked them and hung up.

At the pretrial hearing on the sexual assault case--held in mid-March in front of a juvenile court master who substitutes for the judge on smaller judicial matters--Rhonda's father informed Assistant District Attorney Chuck Miller, who was covering for Ramirez, that he and his daughter wanted to drop the charges. The district attorney took Rhonda aside to talk. When he returned, he said he refused to drop the charges because Rhonda maintained in his meeting with him that she had been raped.

Rhonda's father got so furious he almost had to be restrained by the court bailiff, according to Hack and the Pearls. He shouted that he would never return to court, that he could see what they were up to. "They just want to railroad another black boy and put him away," he yelled.

True to his word, neither he nor Rhonda ever showed up in court again. Sheldon, on the other hand, attended every hearing. "If he went to court on a Wednesday, we'd be at the doctor on Thursday," says Mrs. Pearl. "His head would hurt or his stomach."

Despite Hack's best efforts, the case looked like it was going to trial, and she decided to consult with an associate who had experience in criminal law, though he knew little about juvenile law. Hack bought some textbooks on criminal law and dove headlong into preparing for the case, set for trial in July.

Hack says she on several occasions tried to get information from the district attorney--medical records, witness lists--that would help her prepare an adequate defense. Except for some police reports, Ramirez gave her nothing, she says. The court file in which he was supposed to enter any information he was going to use in the prosecution remained empty, she says. Hack filed a motion to take a videotaped deposition of Rhonda--something she believed could be crucial to the case. The court master denied her motion.

Finally, in mid-May, the District Attorney's Office offered Sheldon a plea bargain. The district attorney would throw out the rape charge if Sheldon would plead guilty to a Class A assault, which would require him to pay a $500 fine, attend sex-education classes, and be on probation for six months. Growing increasingly worried about her chances of winning the case, Hack recommended that Sheldon accept the plea bargain.

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