Whereas Castañeda was in jail, California had enacted a collection of felony justice reforms, together with one which allowed her to be resentenced. A Superior Court docket choose in Los Angeles had vacated Castañeda’s homicide conviction and ordered her launch.
However Castañeda didn’t stroll free. As a substitute, she was loaded right into a white van operated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Castañeda’s story highlights how noncitizens, even longtime authorized residents with inexperienced playing cards like Castañeda, are routinely funneled from state jail into the federal deportation system — even after the convictions that might make them deportable have been overturned. In a conflict with state coverage, authorized data present, ICE and the federal immigration courts are disregarding state reforms which are letting individuals out of jail and dismissing previous convictions.
With the assistance of others acquainted with her case, Castañeda, a girl with a cascade of darkish curls and an infectious chuckle, defined how that July day unfolded and what it meant — for her, and probably for hundreds of different noncitizens who’ve had their convictions dismissed.
From jail to ICE custody
At 8 a.m., Colby Lenz, an advocate with the California Coalition for Ladies Prisoners, pulled into the car parking zone of the jail in Chino, to await Castañeda’s launch and provides her a experience house.
However at 9 a.m. she watched because the guard within the tower opened the jail gate and the white ICE van rolled in. She noticed guards stroll Castañeda out and cargo her into the van. Lenz says Castañeda’s mates inside the ability have been watching, too.
“A few of Sandra’s shut mates had come as shut as they might to this space and have been calling out to her,” she stated. “They have been mainly telling her that they cherished her, and have been actually distressed at what they have been seeing.”
The van drove Castañeda to the ICE subject workplace in San Bernardino. Lenz adopted in her automotive. By 10 a.m. Castañeda was in a holding cell and Lenz was making pressing calls to Anoop Prasad, an immigration lawyer with the Asian Legislation Caucus in San Francisco, who agreed to tackle Castañeda’s immigration case professional bono.
“Anoop and I have been tag teaming, calling the ICE workplace,” stated Lenz. “We each talked to a few of the officers there, making an attempt to persuade them that this was not a authorized detention.”
Prasad stated he even satisfied the LA County District Lawyer’s Workplace, which had initially prosecuted Castañeda, to name ICE and clarify that her homicide conviction had been vacated. However ICE appeared decided to maintain her in custody.
Gang friendships and a capturing
Castañeda’s authentic conviction was linked to a homicide that passed off in 2002, when a teenage woman was shot and killed — and Castañeda was there. However the occasions of that night time are rooted within the early chapters of her story.
Lengthy earlier than Castañeda was born, her household straddled the border with Mexico. Her grandmother was born within the U.S. Her mom and father have been from the Mexican border metropolis of Mexicali. When Castañeda was slightly woman, the household frolicked in each nations. Finally her dad and mom settled in LA, leaving her and her older sister with family members in Mexicali. By the point Castañeda was 9, her dad and mom had separated and her mom had began a brand new household. However an aunt and uncle in LA introduced Castañeda and her sister to the U.S. on inexperienced playing cards, elevating them together with their very own kids.
That aunt, Virginia Reyes, remembers Castañeda as a quiet child who didn’t trigger hassle.
“Sandrita was completely calm,” stated Reyes in Spanish. “She was not a tough woman.”
Reyes and her husband ran a clothes manufacturing unit in South Central LA, assembling clothes for the style business. They known as it Sandra’s Fashions. They employed greater than 20 staff, Reyes stated.
Reyes and her husband put in actually lengthy hours, constructing the enterprise to assist the household. That left Castañeda to fend for herself rather a lot as a child.
“They’d go away early, they’d come house actual late,” she stated. “They’d work seven days per week. So it was all the time work, work, work, work.”
Being concerned with the household enterprise taught her a powerful work ethic, Castañeda stated. However the unsure bonds of her childhood additionally left her craving for a way of belonging.
In junior highschool, Castañeda made mates with some robust youngsters who have been a part of a gang. Her aunt tried to guard her by placing her in a Catholic college. But it surely didn’t assist.
Castañeda by no means bought in hassle with the regulation. However that modified on the night time of Could 10, 2002, when she was 20. Castañeda later testified that she was driving some mates to Taco Bell in her van round midnight, when a man within the van instructed her to decelerate. Then out of the blue, he began firing out the window.
Castañeda is cautious when speaking concerning the crime, as a result of, even 20 years later, she’s nervous about gang retaliation. So KQED has agreed to not use the names of the victims or the names or gang monikers of these concerned within the capturing. And Castañeda requested that Prasad, her immigration lawyer, be the one to explain what occurred.
“One of many individuals within the van thought they noticed somebody within the neighborhood who was from a rival gang,” Prasad instructed me. “He requested her to decelerate, and she or he — did not actually know what was happening — slowed down. The individual pulled out a gun and began capturing from the automotive.”
The bullets hit two youngsters who have been sitting on the entrance steps of an house constructing in South Central. An 18-year-old was shot within the leg — and he recovered. However the 15-year-old woman beside him was killed. In a panic, Castañeda drove on.
“She stopped a few blocks later,” Prasad recounted. “Police have been already there on the scene. And he or she was the one one who was arrested. Everybody else ran away.”
Castañeda was taken to jail. A California regulation on the time — referred to as the felony homicide rule — stated that if an individual dies whereas a felony is being dedicated, anybody concerned could possibly be discovered responsible of homicide, whether or not or not they meant or dedicated the killing. Below the regulation, prosecutors charged Castañeda with homicide as a result of she was driving the van, despite the fact that she herself didn’t kill anybody.
“It was a tough-on-crime period,” stated Prasad. “Throughout the state, anybody who was remotely linked and even current on the scene would [often] get hit with a homicide cost … So I feel the DA simply aggressively prosecuted and used this overly broad principle to cost her with homicide.”
Castañeda went on trial. However her aunt didn’t suppose the police detectives have been doing sufficient to seek out the precise killer.
“I attempted to be a detective myself,” recalled Reyes. “I went locations I by no means imagined going, making an attempt to trace down the one that had accomplished this. I even went to events, dressing as much as look youthful. I put up fliers round city along with his photograph on them.”
Reyes had no luck — till in the future, after the trial was over, she says she noticed the person at a automotive wash. She was afraid he would acknowledge her, however she pulled over and bought on the telephone.
“I known as the police and I known as the lawyer. They usually simply replied, ‘Oh, the case is closed.’” she stated. “I couldn’t consider it. I felt so powerless.”
The LA Police Division now says the case remains to be open. However nobody else has ever been arrested or prosecuted for the capturing, in line with officers on the LA County District Lawyer’s Workplace.
Castañeda was convicted of second-degree homicide and tried homicide. The sentence got here with enhancements as a result of a gun was used within the killing, and there was gang involvement: 40 years to life behind bars.
Reyes says when she heard the decision, she was in shock. Castañeda had no felony historical past and insisted she hadn’t deliberate to harm anybody. Reyes anticipated her niece to face punishment, however no more than a few years.
“How was it attainable that this individual was nonetheless strolling free and Sandra was going to be locked up for therefore a few years?” Reyes puzzled.
Coming of age behind bars
At first when Castañeda went to jail, again in 2003, she was offended. However over time she developed a brand new perspective on the crime.
“It was not a deliberate state of affairs — it simply type of occurred. However I nonetheless really feel that I did have a component as a result of I used to be the driving force,” she stated. “So right this moment I do know that again then I had selections. However as a youngster, I did not know that I did … At the moment I do perceive and I take full accountability in my view.”
In jail, Castañeda sought out peer assist teams. She took faculty programs. She labored within the carpentry, paint and auto retailers, studying new expertise and discovering satisfaction in bodily work. She additionally grew to become a pacesetter within the hospice program, caring for girls who have been dying in jail.
“I bought to know who I used to be as an individual, so I am not bitter in any respect,” she stated. “Jail made me the lady that I’m right this moment.”
Castañeda — as soon as a shy little one — discovered she’s resilient and a go-getter. She discovered to not be afraid to talk up for what she believes and to advocate for others.
‘[T]here is all the time that little hope … ‘
Then, in 2018, one thing occurred that Castañeda by no means anticipated.
The California Legislature dramatically restricted the felony murder rule, the regulation that led to her conviction. Lawmakers cited the injustice of a regulation that disproportionately affected ladies and other people of shade. State courts had even questioned whether or not the previous regulation was constitutional. The reform was a part of a broader movement in California and elsewhere to cut back mass incarceration and over-punishment.
For Castañeda, it meant she might ask a choose to vacate her homicide conviction and provides her a brand new sentence. A Stanford College regulation clinic linked her with a professional bono lawyer who helped her petition for resentencing. The top of the state jail system even wrote a letter of assist.