The Perfect Pawn
Fernando Perez is a good example of the abuses endured by people with mental illness when they are caught up in the legal system.
It all started in the early morning hours of December 25, 2000. That cold night changed the life of two strangers forever. On that night off-duty Springfield police officer Carlos D’Amato was wounded after being shot by an unknown assailant some two blocks from his Cross Street apartment in the south side of Springfield. As to be expected, the incident garnered extensive media coverage both on television and in print with a report on the incident on every local news channel and newspapers for weeks. In less than a week the office of the Mayor of Springfield announced that a reward was being offered in exchange for information leading to the capture and conviction of the person responsible for the shooting of officer D’Amato. Stating that: “the person responsible was a threat to society.”
The approximately $10,000.00 reward was incentive enough for a witness who wasn’t really an eyewitness to come forward and give information to the police. Surprisingly enough, that witness turned out to be Fernando Perez’s ex-girlfriend and mother of their four-month-old little girl. What motivated the young woman to give information, which she supposedly got directly from Fernando himself? The answer to that question is somewhat of a mystery. What is clear is that the moment Claritza Santini became aware of the $10,000.00 reward she contacted Detective Ricardo Viruet, a presumed cousin of Santini and a member of the tactical unit investigating robberies and also in charge of investigating the D’Amato shooting. Santini implicated Fernando in the shooting of D’Amato and everything started to roll from there. Now both Santini and Viruet had a vested interest in Fernando being arrested for the crime, i.e., Santini would get the reward and Viruet would be praised as a hero. $10,000.00 was Santini’s 30 pieces of silver for her betrayal of the father of her child.
After their meeting, Santini and Viruet met with District attorney William Bennett where Santini further implicated Fernando in the shooting of D’Amato. Following this meeting an arrest warrant was issued for the capture of Fernando Perez. Fernando was visiting friends in Scranton for the holidays as was customary since he attended school there in previous years. The Springfield police contacted the Scranton police about the arrest warrant and Fernando was arrested without incident by a SWAT team and taken into custody. This is where the real nightmare began for the 17-year-old with an IQ of 70.
Fernando was taken to the police station in Scranton where he was put in a Spartan cell wearing only his underwear and with a window open. This is a common torture tactic by the police called “softening the suspect.” After several hours of this abuse he was taken to an interrogation room where he was questioned for hours while being denied water or food. It is worth reminding the readers that this was happening to a person who was diagnosed borderline mentally retarded, while hundreds of miles away from home and away from his only source of guidance and support, his mother, Nancy Garcia. Suffice it to say, that at the time of his arrest, Fernando had been diagnosed with learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic depression—problems that had been exacerbated by a history of domestic violence. His vocabulary was near a sixth-grade level. A psychologist appointed to review Fernando later determined that Fernando’s IQ “is at the bottom of the borderline intellectual functioning range, indicating that his thinking and his ability to understand the world and predict outcomes, is much like that of a mentally retarded person.” Fernando was subjected to mental torture at the hands of officers from both police departments. Relying on what he’d seen on television Fernando requested a lawyer but his request was simply ignored and he was eventually forced to sign a confession at gunpoint by officer Eugene Dean.
Fernando was subjected to further abuse by the ineffectiveness of his lawyer who did nothing during a suppression hearing where the determining factor as to whether Fernando made a voluntary statement was that if he could hold a job flipping burgers he was smart enough to know what he was doing when he signed the confession. During his trial his attorney did nothing to champion his cause and Fernando was convicted and sentenced to 33 years in prison based on nothing more than the word of an ex-girlfriend whose motives are seriously in question, and a coerced confession gotten through torturing a borderline mentally-retarded 17-year-old.
Today, 13 years later, Fernando sits in prison hoping that someone wi11 hear about his situation and offer to help him get out of the nightmare that started when an unknown assailant shot Carlos D’Amato. We, as a society, must demand more accountability from our law enforcement officia1s. Especial1y when it come to the most vulnerable ones in our society. Fernando was no match for seasoned veteran interrogators. He could have been made to confess to ki1ling President Kennedy.
—November 14, 2013
Bryant Arroyo #CU-1126
301 Morea Road
Frackville, PA 17932