Nov. 27, 2005 Michael Salaz won't be home for the holidays this year. He is serving the second year of a 10-year sentence in Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility on St. Croix. for second-degree rape. However, if some committed friends, family members, community stalwarts, and Salaz's wife have their way, he could be home next year.
Judge Ive Swan sentenced Salaz to 10 years the maximum allowable on Aug. 18, 2004 for having consensual sex with a minor who was 16 at the time. He was 32. Salaz's friends, family and even the prosecuting attorney were shocked at the severity of the sentence. Swan based his sentence on documents he was given a pre-sentencing report and a detective's report.
Those documents, says Michael's wife Ketchi Salaz, were solely the victim's testimony. The detective's report is an account from the victim. Michael Salaz's remarks are not included. There is nothing on record of his rebuttal, nor did the judge ever see any statements from Michael, according to Ketchi.
Salaz was employed as a bartender at Duffy's Love Shack in Red Hook when the incident occurred on Dec. 8, 2002. Court records indicate that is where he met the 16-year-old.
His guilty plea stemmed from a plea bargain agreement. Salaz pleaded guilty to a charge of second-degree rape, which is brought when an adult has consensual sex with a minor who is 16, but not yet 18, and the adult is more than five years older than the minor.
Salaz had originally been charged with aggravated second-degree rape and first-degree unlawful sexual contact, charges that indicate force was involved.
Assistant Attorney General Douglas Dick, who prosecuted the case, said at the time of the sentencing that the issue of whether Salaz used force was hotly contested. The plea bargain to a lesser charge was offered, and Salaz agreed.
Prior to 2000 consensual sex with a 16 year old was not a crime. The age of consent from 16 years old to 18 years old was part of Sen. Lorraine Berry's Child Protection Act of 2000.
Salaz's court-appointed attorney, Kimberly Rhoton, asked Swan to release Salaz on probation and sentence him to community service. Dick asked the judge to use his discretion in sentencing. He did not make a sentencing recommendation.
Territorial law allows judges to use their discretion when sentencing; even if a plea arrangement includes a recommended sentence, a judge is not bound by that. He can still impose a lesser or greater sentence.
Cases of Disparate Sentencing
Salaz's sentencing was reported in the Daily News on the same day the paper reported a St. Croix case, in which a 20-year-old man who pleaded guilty to having unlawful sexual contact with a 15-year-old girl was released by Judge Edgar Ross. Ross sentenced the man to one year in prison, but he suspended the entire sentence, and placed the man on one-year supervised probation. Ross said he recognized the man was sorry for what he had done.
Hardly a week passes in the Virgin Islands without a new rape case being reported. The Salaz family has compiled records of charges of sexual offenses and sentences from 2002 to 2005. Out of 24 cases, they say, only four have gotten sentences of more than one year. Of the seven cases of second-degree rape, which Salaz is charged with: two received no time at all; one received one month; one received one year; one received two years; one received three years; and one received five years.
Ken Salaz, Michael's brother, wrote in a letter to Gov. Charles W. Turnbull that in two other cases where sentencing was 10 years, a man repeatedly raped a 14-year-old and a 12-year-old during a 10-month period in front of the girls' mother. The man had an extensive criminal history, and he had already spent 10 years in prison for burglary, grand larceny, first-degree robbery.
In the second case, Ken Salaz said, a man repeatedly raped a 15-year-old mentally disabled girl.
Appeals from the community
Ketchi Salaz, Ken Salaz, and businessman Rich Karecki are working almost around the clock for Salaz. They are exploring two options: an appeal of his sentence or clemency from Turnbull, which could be either a commuting his sentence to one less severe, or a full pardon.
Salaz's severe sentence has provoked a groundswell of support for his situation. The small group has reportedly gathered more than 250 letters to the governor from a spectrum of the community academics, women's rights advocates, businessmen and women, teachers, many individual citizens who express outrage at the sentence, one senator and two prison inmates. Many have criticized what they have labeled Swan's "capricious decision," and have expressed fear for the justice system, should this case set precedent.
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone has voiced his support of Salaz. He told the Source he is writing a letter to Attorney General Kerry Drue (to be forwarded to the governor) asking for a commutation of Salaz's sentence to one of fewer years. Malone said, "It is the consensus of many in the community that the sentence is too harsh."
In comparable cases, most recently, the Nov. 24-25 Avis newspaper reported a case where Superior Court Judge Leon Kendall freed an 18-year-old man charged with unlawful sexual contact with at 13-year-old girl. The man, Wayne Eugene, had been incarcerated for 11 and a half months when his case was heard. Kendall told him, "I hope you have learned your lesson. You have better things to do with your life than being brought into the justice system." He had been charged with second-degree aggravated assault and battery and second-degree unlawful sexual contact for having sex with the girl.
This was the second time Eugene has appeared in court to be sentenced. According to the report, Swan had refused to sentence Eugene and refused the plea agreement in February this year because of a written statement made by the victim's mother.
An Unusual Marriage
Ketchi Prevot-Keogh met Salaz while vacationing on St. Thomas with her family, during the time Salaz was out on bail. A native of French Guyana, she had recently graduated from Derby University in England with a degree in art therapy. As the two developed a relationship, she returned again to St. Thomas, where they became engaged.
Though they both recognized Salaz had a court date coming up, and that he would probably have to do time in prison, neither had been prepared for the 10-year sentence.
Their wedding took place Dec. 30, 2004 at the prison in a ceremony Ketchi Salaz can only describe as "bizarre." Salaz was first taken in handcuffs to Territorial Court to sign the marriage license, after which they were married in the prison visiting room. Gazing at each other through thick bullet-proof glass, they said their vows over a speaker-phone.
They had originally scheduled the ceremony for Dec. 21, where families of both would have been able to attend, and where they would be allowed to touch, but in the interim, the prison went on lockdown, and that ceremony was canceled.
Louise L. Leard, a minister of the Universal Life Church in Christiansted, performed the ceremony. They had counseled with her for three months, and she became a personal friend.
Leard is among the many who have written the governor on Salaz's behalf. "Michael had a depth of character I was surprised to encounter in a young man in prison for a sex offense," Leard wrote. "What has impressed me the most is his compassion and sympathy for the young woman who had accused him, and his determination to be a useful and positive presence in the prison environment."
Community Service, Inside
Salaz is doing just that. Since being incarcerated in 2004, he has used his background and skills to help prison inmates. Salaz has a degree in chemistry from Purdue University. He graduated in 1999. Seeing the prison needs, he immediately volunteered to teach GED clas
ses at the prison.
And he has set up a unique prison program. In nine months of being at Golden Grove, Salaz has established a computer lab which he teaches through a collaborative training program between the University of the Virgin Islands and the prison.
UVI Professor Lynn Rosenthal wrote to Turnbull in August. "I have come to know Michael Salaz through a collaborative training program between UVI and Golden Grove, an invaluable program that would never have been established," he said, "but for Mr. Salaz's altruistic concern for his fellow inmates, his initiative and his persistence,"
he wrote. "I can say from direct experience that Mr. Salaz is sincere, thoughtful, hard working, respectful and sensitive in his relationships. I have no doubt that UVI will be proud to have him represent us and that the inmates will benefit significantly from his guidance. Keeping him in prison is a waste and a horrible injustice."
Rosenthal addressed another concern: "In order to be effective, our laws and justice system must be seen by the community to be equitable, and sentences must be perceived as fair and appropriate."
He concludes, "Mr. Salaz's sentence is so unusually severe, such a radical departure from the norm in our community that it stands out as a dramatic aberration of justice. This punishment does not fit the crime. Commuting this sentence will serve to build and restore public respect for our system of law and government."
Ulla Neuburger, a 12-year advocate and former board member of the St. Croix Women's Coaltion, and a five-year tutor for the GED program at Golden Grove prison met Salaz in October 2004. She wrote Turnbull, "Within nine months of being in prison, and with unprecedented initiative, [Salaz] has established a computer lab in the prison that is connected to UVI. All the computers were donated with the help of his new wife and friends on St. Thomas and St. Croix. Through his sustained efforts, he is creating an environment where fellow inmates can drastically improve themselves and become a positive addition to society when they are released."
Kyambo Adams, an inmate and student of Salaz's wrote Turnbull: "…Michael Salaz motivated me. Over the last 10 months, and with quite a bit of exceptional help from Mike, I recently took my high school diploma test, and passed the first time. Even with all the hard work I put into my studies, I do not feel I could have done nearly as well if it had not been for the time and patience Mike showed me. He has shown himself to be a caring person, which is very rare in these surroundings."
Volume of letters have been written to Turnbull from a cross section of the community, including women's rights advocates, a letter offering employment, and two from inmates.
One, from a member of the Women's Coalition who is also the mother of an underage rape victim said "I do not condone this crime … nevertheless, I believe the decision by Judge Swan was overzealous, or ill-informed or both."
If Salaz does not receive a full pardon, laws require that he will have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life .
Salaz readily says her husband is willing to pay his dues, but "not eight times the dues." And not for the rest of his life.
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