By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
But during a hearing on the plea bargain, Hack told the court master she had changed her mind. That morning, she had received Rhonda's Parkland and Timberlawn records that she had subpoenaed at her own expense. When she read Rhonda's statement that her cousin had raped her and that she was seeking revenge against her boyfriend for hitting her and breaking off the relationship, Hack was resolved to clear Sheldon's name.
Ramirez angrily said he would go ahead with the trial on the rape charge, according to Hack. The trial was set for July 11.
Hack had thought the Parkland and Timberlawn evidence would convince the district attorney to drop the case. Now, she was very worried and told the Pearls they were free to seek other counsel. "I don't know why they hung in there with me," Hack says. The Pearls did have their doubts, but they appreciated Hack's faith in them and the hard work she was doing.
In early June, Sheldon went to municipal court for his and Rhonda's misdemeanor assault charges against one another. Rhonda did not show up, and the case against Sheldon was dismissed.
At the end of June, about three weeks before trial, Hack made a last-ditch effort on her client's behalf. She filed a half-dozen motions in Gaither's court, including a motion for summary judgment--in effect asking the judge to dismiss the case--and once again asking for permission to videotape a deposition of Rhonda.
Clad in a pink dress and matching full-brimmed hat, Hack stood before Gaither and made her case on the motions. To Hack's chagrin, Gaither informed her that summary judgments are not appropriate in juvenile cases. But he did reverse the master's decision and granted her the right to depose Rhonda. Ramirez vehemently argued against the judge's decision and claimed that the Pearls and their attorney had already harassed Rhonda and her father by trying to get them to drop the charges.
Gaither told the lawyers he was allowing the deposition "because questions involved in a case can often be cleared up without a three- or four-day jury trial."
Mrs. Pearl, Sheldon, and Miss Haywood left the courtroom rattled and confused. They stepped into an empty office to collect themselves for the emotional ordeal that the deposition would entail.
"This boy is just a child," Haywood, sitting in the empty office, told the Observer that day. "She [Rhonda] appears sweet and petite, but she is just wreaking havoc. She put this family under duress that is unbelievable."
Sheldon sighed. "I just want this to be over," he said.
A few moments later, a court bailiff walked in looking for Hack, who rushed back into the courtroom to learn that the district attorney had just nonsuited--or dismissed--the case without prejudice. Had it been dismissed with prejudice, Sheldon would have been vindicated and a completely free man. But "without prejudice" means the prosecutor has reserved the right to refile the charges anytime in the next four years.
Both Hack and the Pearls tried to contact the District Attorney's Office to get more information about the decision. No one returned their calls. Assistant District Attorney Ramirez and his supervisor, Gary Arey, told the Observer they could not comment on a case involving juveniles. Attorneys familiar with the juvenile justice system say it is unlikely that the district attorney will refile the case. "It's a way to encourage kids not to get in any more trouble," says one attorney.
Sitting in her kitsch-cluttered office-apartment, Linda Hack says she feels bad about the outcome. "Sometimes I think I should have gone for the plea bargain and it would have ended sooner for Sheldon. But why should he be on probation for something he didn't do?
"I have lingering guilt. I got the case dismissed, but Sheldon is still a hostage to the system. That's the real injustice. I worry about how Sheldon is going to think about women in the future. I truly believe a false rape charge is worse than the act itself. It victimizes the rest of us who were actually victims. It makes us go through more to prove the truth and diminishes our status. I feel sorry for the girl, but I feel more sorry for my clients. They are such good people and they were so wronged."
A few weeks ago, Sheldon told his mother he didn't think he would date again until he was a high-school senior. "Until then, girls will just be my sisters," he said. He says the whole ordeal was chilling, but that he won't let it ruin his life.
Neither, apparently, will his classmates. At the end of the school year, his class of 1,500 voted him Freshman of the Year. He could not fully appreciate the honor, though, with the trial looming over him.
Honors like that help to put the case behind him, but he still fears another humiliating arrest. Worse, he's lost faith in the system. "I went through all this just to find out no one was lying and no one was telling the truth," he says. "The case just ended. It's unsettling and unfair.