“To fully recount all the injustices that have taken place in this case would nearly be overwhelming.” — from the 2011 state Court of Appeals opinion in Denver L. Stewart III v. Commonwealth of Kentucky
Denver Stewart has no trouble reciting those injustices.
They date all the way back to October 1997, when court officials in Pike County illegally banished him from the state for two years for possessing marijuana. Just 21 years old, with a wife and a young son, he was given barely 48 hours to pack up and get out of town, to go “west of the Mississippi River.”
When Stewart returned to the county following his banishment, he was repeatedly arrested and jailed — seven or eight times, by his count — on felony assault charges associated with the marijuana case. The appeals court concluded these arrests should never have occurred and that Stewart should not have been jailed in connection with them.
When the Court of Appeals issued its ruling, Stewart had been incarcerated for more than two years after finally pleading guilty to the assault charges, which the judges concluded should have been dismissed in 1999.
Prosecution, defense, the trial court — none escaped the appellate judges’ wrath for what their opinion said was Stewart’s prolonged mistreatment by the Pike County judicial system.
“Justice eluded this case, and there is nothing but empty excuses for the numerous constitutional wrongs inflicted on Stewart in this matter,” the decision states. “All involved who were charged with upholding the U. S. Constitution and the Kentucky Constitution failed in one way or another in their obligations to ensure that justice prevail. All share in the blame.”
The court’s findings are of some solace to Stewart today, as he serves a 10-year sentence at the Roederer Correctional Complex in Oldham County for two theft convictions. The 39-year-old recently discussed his case in a prison interview with WFPL’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.
But the illegal banishment and subsequent arrests also sent Stewart’s life into a tailspin, exacting a toll that he says included the demise of his marriage, the loss of his job and a fractured relationship with his son. He had to hire lawyers and post bonds. Eventually, he relapsed into long-festering drug abuse and, then, into what he says was narcotics-fueled criminal behavior.
By Stewart’s calculation, he spent more than four years locked up for no legitimate legal reason, time that he can never reclaim.
Though illegal in Kentucky since 1965, the age-old practice of banishment still occurs today, though just how frequently is anyone’s guess. KyCIR exposed two other such cases last year.
In the other, 25-year-old Derrick Rose hanged himself in the Grant County jail in 2010 after being arrested for violating a banishment order. (Read “Banished and Forgotten: How the Criminal Justice System Wronged Derrick Rose”)
Denver Stewart appears to be another extreme example of the consequences of banishment. And his story underscores how wrong turns by the legal system can wreak havoc on someone’s life.
None of those cited by the appellate court as having a hand in the injustices heaped upon Stewart would discuss his case with KyCIR.
Former Pike Circuit Judge Charles Lowe Jr., who presided over it, was among those who refused to be interviewed. “I have no comment,” Lowe said. He declined to say why.
But Louisville attorney Linda Bullock, who as a public defender handled Stewart’s successful appeal and is now in private practice, was not at all reluctant to talk about how he was treated.
“It’s frustrating when you’re in the justice system and you aren’t experiencing any justice, no matter what you do,” Bullock said. “It was appalling. He did everything he was supposed to do, and every time he turned around, he got knocked down.”
In prison, Stewart has attained community-custody status, which allows him to work outside the fence. He has completed drug rehab and reconnected with his religious faith.
He is eligible for parole in March. Although he says he’s destitute and he readily admits to previous bad behavior, Stewart vows that when he is released, he will be a productive, law-abiding citizen, maintain his two-plus years of sobriety — and never return to Pike County.
Here are excerpts from the interview with Stewart:
Why did you accept banishment?
I accepted that agreement because I had a young wife, a young child…. I was locked up… for smoking a little pot.
My attorney said, ‘look, Denver, if you wanna get out of jail today.’ … They said if I accepted the banishment plea, they’d let me out of jail from my 365-day misdemeanor conviction.
What if anything have you gained from your experience?
I’ve learned a greater appreciation for most simple stuff. Just simple things: clothing and food, a candy bar here and there, a soda pop.
I’ve always made pretty good money, and have lived pretty good life on the outside, but when you get locked up and have these things taken away from you, you gain a greater respect for it, appreciation.
What do you have now?
I got faith, I got sobriety and I got a support system through people who are no blood relation to me, people who have shown love…Christian love…
I have nothin’ material. I have what boxers and T shirts I have in my locker. I don’t even have a TV. I’ve got a rental TV…. Took me a year to get it.
Do you think the people involved in your case owe you anything?
I absolutely feel they do. These people in no way have taken responsibility for their actions.
You know, what would be fair and just would be that this not happen to anybody else, that somebody hold accountable the people who are responsible for this and quit letting them play god to the poor people of eastern Kentucky.
Is it more important for you to be personally compensated for what you’ve gone through, or for those responsible to be held accountable?
What would be most important would be for the ones responsible to be held accountable, but it would sure be nice to get some type of reimbursement. For me, from a moral standpoint, money wouldn’t fix it for me if I knew they’re still doing other people that way. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night… If you give me the option of money or to see that somebody was held accountable, I would want definitely see it not happen to someone else.
You’ve told us that once you’re released from prison, you’ll move into transitional housing, continue in AA/NA, do some volunteer work and stay connected to your religious faith. What else do you intend to do?
I’ve got a plan, I’ve got a great plan.
I’ve got a support system now. I’ve got work lined up…Whatever they’ve got for me. I’ve never had a problem working. I’ve got a good work history and a real good work ethic.
I know that through doing the right things, I’ll be just fine, I’ll get my life back together, but I gotta get out first.
I know people that were just as bad as shape as I have (been) that have turned their lives around, that are successful members of society, and respectable people. If they can do it, if it works for them, it’ll work for me also. I just gotta put the work in.
What do you need?
I need a roof over my head. And I need somewhere that I can lay down. I need to get out here and get to work and fix this. I really don’t have any hopes that anyone else is gonna do it. I have to do it for myself.
Are you in touch with your family?
I hear from my mom and dad, that’s about it, every once in a while. They’re in Tennessee. I guess, once you get stay gone for so long, people just kind of forget you. I get a letter every once in a while. They sent me $20 for Christmas.
Do you hope to reestablish relations with your son?
It’s at the top of my priority list. I’ve not had contact with him in over two years. I write letters but I don’t get anything back.
Do you plan to return to Pike County?
I absolutely do not. My son’s there and I’d like to see him, but…that’s not enough reason for me to go back there and take a chance on anything happening.
Reporter R.G. Dunlop can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (502) 814.6533.
(Caption: Denver Stewart, via J. Tyler Franklin/WFPL News)
This story was reported by WFPL’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.