Chances are, if you’re under 35 but old enough to have voted for president a couple of times, you’re still carrying around the mental imprint from the day your adolescent brain was stamped hard by lyrics describing a robbery gone bad.
Once upon a time not long ago
When people wore pajamas and lived life slow
When laws were stern and justice stood
And people were behavin’ like they ought ta good
There lived a lil’ boy who was misled . . .
The words themselves are probably enough to bring up the memory. There was no melody, just the slight British accent in the voice rapping the tale, likely still as familiar as when you first heard it, which was about the time the first George Bush became president on a mandate to read his lips.
“. . . We gonna make some cash
Robbin’ old folks and makin’ tha dash”
They did the job, money came with ease
But one couldn’t stop, it’s like he had a disease
He robbed another and another and a sista and her brotha. . .
The song, “A Children’s Story,” wasn’t the first hit for rapper Slick Rick, but it was one of his most enduring. He had burst onto the hip-hop scene a few years earlier, in 1985, with a couple of memorable tales, “The Show” and “La-Di-Da-Di,” that he’d rhymed to the rhythms of the human beatbox, Doug E. Fresh. By 1989 and the release of his first album, The Adventures of Slick Rick, the trademark eye patch, flashy gold chains, and storytelling songs of Ricky Martin Lloyd Walters were as well-known to hip-hop fans as his other handle, “The Ruler.”
Rick the Ruler reigned at a key moment in rap’s history, when it was rapidly taking over the mainstream but before it took on a harder, more sneering gloss. A nice guy like Will Smith could still sell records by calling himself the Fresh Prince, Slick Rick’s rhymes about prostitutes and holdups were as tongue-in-cheek as they were memorable, and the harder gangsta style was still waiting for Tupac, Biggie, and Snoop to arrive.
The late 1980s were Slick Rick’s moment. And the song on that first album, the one about the young kid who found himself sucked into a life of crime, remains his high-water mark. “A Children’s Story” anticipates the crime-obsessed music to come later, but along with Rick’s characteristic narrative style, there is also a childlike quality echoed by the video made for it, which featured Keystone Kops, cluelessly chasing the young thief.
He went outside, but there was cops all over
Then he dipped into a car, a stolen Nova
Raced up the block doing eighty-three
Crashed into a tree near University
Escaped alive though the car was battered
Rat-a-tat-tatted and all the cops scattered
If only it were so easy for Rick Walters to make the cops stalking him today scatter.
For the past 16 years, Walters has been caught in his own nightmarish chase with authorities that has had more stops and starts and twists and turns than one of Slick Rick’s legendary raps.
Most hip-hop fans with an old-school jones know the basics: Walters, born in London to Jamaican parents, came to New York as a child but never bothered to get citizenship. At the height of his fame, in 1990, meanwhile, the rapper injured two people in a shooting in which he claimed to have feared for his own life. He served time in prison, and after he got out, the INS began its long campaign to kick him out of the country. Rick fought his deportation, winning some battles over the years and losing others. And in general, the New York court system where he fought most of his skirmishes proved friendly territory.
But Walters, who still lives in New York, also has a long relationship with Florida, a state with a much more complex attitude about immigration.
Much of Slick Rick’s family lives in Fort Lauderdale, and Walters has always made regular trips to South Florida, including one pivotal journey to Miami for a cruise that took him into international waters in 2002.
Arguing that by taking that cruise, Walters had deported himself, the INS detained him, beginning the darkest chapter of his life: a 17-month stay in a Florida prison.
And now, Slick Rick’s long fight to remain in the United States may finally be about to end with a final, likely futile battle in a Florida judicial district notorious for its conservative reputation.
Walters vs. Ashcroft, meanwhile, has become much larger than simply a case against an aging hip-hop star. It grapples with some of the most technical and novel problems in immigration law in the security-heightened, post-9/11 era, and its outcome may affect the fate of every alien in U.S. custody. Four times longer and many times costlier than the average case, it’s one of the most unusual immigration cases in the nation’s history.
But even Slick Rick looks like he won’t be able to talk his way out of this one.
In 1985, Rick Walters was a 20-year-old in the Bronx who had gone to the La Guardia High School of Music & Art and, like plenty of others, was looking to stand out in the early Bronx rap scene. But if there was one thing Rick could do, it was stand out. The eye patch helped. He’d worn it since a childhood accident blinded his right eye. But he also decked himself out in brightly colored Kangol hats and matching blazers. Soon, Rick attracted the attention of Doug E. Fresh, who was making a name for himself through his seemingly superhuman ability to imitate the sounds of drum machines and synthesizers with his mouth. With Fresh’s backbeat, Slick Rick laid down a simple rhyme that almost singlehandedly transformed rap.
La-di-da-di, we like to party
We don’t cause trouble, we don’t bother nobody
We’re just some men that’s on the mic
And when we rock upon the mic
We rock the mic right!
“There was nothing like it,” says Bill Adler, a hip-hop historian and publicist who’s represented Walters for decades. “It was really a song-length narrative. It was immediately memorized by kids paying attention from coast to coast. They ate it up with a spoon.” The familiar song also influenced Snoop Dogg enough that he covered it almost verbatim as “Lodi Dodi” on Doggystyle, his breakout 1993 debut album.
“That was one of the few times anybody had ever covered a song,” says Jeff Chang, author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. “That just showed the influence that he had in New York and across the country to the West Coast.”
Almost overnight, Slick Rick was a household name, at least in houses where hip-hop was played. He signed with Russell Simmons at Def Jam Records, then the biggest label in the business, and in 1989 released The Adventures of Slick Rick, which hit number one on the Billboard R&B/hip-hop charts and quickly went platinum, one of the first hip-hop records to do so.
“It was recognized as a classic from the moment it dropped,” Adler says.
“What Slick Rick brought to the table,” says Yvonne Bynoe, author of The Encyclopedia of Rap and Hip Hop Culture, “was the idea that rap songs were not ditties but vehicles to convey important messages and thoughts.”
Slick Rick’s raps did more than shout out or posture—they told stories. This skill ensured him a place in hip-hop’s pantheon of MCs.
“This is when people are still experimenting with choruses, with ways of using that song form. Rick quickly mastered that,” Chang says. “He was able to transform rap from a kind of live performance thing to a much more story-based pop song. Slick Rick was one of the first people that recognized that rap could be . . . turned into a story with a beginning, middle, and end.”
Walters was quickly imitated. Dozens of artists have sampled, covered, and re-mixed his songs. You can hear the echoes in songs by everyone from NWA and Biggie Smalls to Ghostface Killah and Nas.
“He’s been really unheralded, but I think that his particular mode of rhyming has really touched a lot of different rappers over the years,” Chang says. “You can see his influence everywhere. People are always going to hold him in high regard just for ‘La-Di-Da-Di’ and his first album.”
As his star rose, Walters played the part of the MC to the hilt, decking himself out in jewelry and chains—sometimes $60,000 in baubles at a time. And besides the trademark eye patch, he also sometimes wore a gold crown. Next to him, Run D.M.C. looked like a pair of monks.
“All of that stuff—the fuzzy Kangol, the eye patch, and the big fat gold chain—became identified with him, but you would see it pop up on everyone,” Chang says. “His sartorial style, this idea of the artist as a real fabulous kind of person—he was the person who made that image. It was a little bit different from the raw black-on-black of Run D.M.C. or the youthful exuberance of LL Cool J.”
But there was also something disarming about Rick’s charm. “In contrast to many rap artists who promoted a gritty, often one-dimensional street persona, Slick Rick’s persona was that of a dapper ladies man who could be both funny and insightful,” Bynoe says.
True, there were less lovable things about him. Walters took heat for the lyrics of one of his biggest early successes, “Treat Her Like a Prostitute,” which became a mixtape hit in 1990 even though radio kept it off the air for lines like “take off your rubber and there’s one more inside her.” But Rick’s delivery was rarely harsh—he seemed somehow lovingly misogynistic.
As his fame grew, however, his notoriety quickly outpaced his ability to deal with it. Newly rich, he bought real estate he couldn’t afford and fancy cars that got him unwanted attention.
“I was a little more flashy,” Walters told an immigration judge in 1995. “I used to wear a lot of jewelry, drive fancy cars. I just got a lot of money real fast, and I just acted like a child with a lot of money.”
Walters also spent money on protection. He knew that in his part of the Bronx, a slight, newly minted superstar with vision in only one eye and gold on every finger made for a tempting target.
Increasingly concerned that he was vulnerable, he began carrying firearms and hiring bodyguards.
“Living by myself, making records, and my name already being known all over the place, I felt I would need a little protection of some sort,” he testified later.
So when his cousin, Mark Plummer, arrived in New York fresh from Jamaica with a tough-guy reputation, Walters hired him as a bodyguard. It turned out to be a bad idea—Plummer wanted easy money and drug connections, not work, Walters claimed.
“He was using this tough-guy stuff on me, and I felt at the time that I was vulnerable,” Walters told an immigration judge in 1995. He soon fired Plummer, giving him $3,000 and a van as severance. But it wasn’t enough. “Then all type of strange things was happening,” Walters said. “I was getting robbed. People ran into my house, tied me up, and beat me—pistol-whipped.”
In April of 1990, outside a Bronx club at 3 a.m., several men approached Walters near his Nissan Pathfinder. “We want you,” they told him before two of them blasted 20 shots, hitting Walters three times and sending him, his female passenger, and a man standing nearby to the hospital. Walters recognized the assailants as friends of Plummer’s.
After that, Walters bought handguns—five different kinds—and a sawed-off shotgun. He began carrying them almost everywhere he went. His friends sensed the trouble and found excuses to avoid him. Meanwhile, Plummer got even more direct. “He just straight up said ‘Yes, I did it.’ He wanted money. I was afraid to come out my own house,” Walters told the judge.
On July 3, 1990, Walters and his girlfriend, Lisa Santiago, went out to get some Chinese food, Walters wearing his Davis 380 automatic pistol in his waistband, the other guns and ammunition scattered throughout the car—in coat pockets, in a bag under Santiago’s feet, and on the floor. After eating, they got into Walters’ black car to go shopping for their unborn baby that Santiago, then seven months pregnant, was carrying.
Then Walters, edgy and paranoid, spotted his cousin, Plummer, coming out of a store at 241st Street and White Plains Road. Walters reached for the closest gun and fired.
His first two shots, aimed out of the window of the car as he drove past, missed Plummer entirely and hit the ankles of Wilbert Henry, an unemployed taxi driver who was standing at the curb. Walters then shot Plummer twice in the leg and once in the arm before Plummer managed to escape inside a store. Walters sped off.
He led police on a short high-speed chase south on the Bronx River Parkway, weaving between cars, then tried to exit the highway with a sudden turn from the left lane. He misjudged the distance and crashed into a tree. Both of Santiago’s legs were broken in the collision, and Walters was covered with cuts. When they arrived at the hospital, Walters and Santiago were both arrested.
Walters was indicted on two counts of attempted murder. He pleaded guilty to all charges, including assault, use of a firearm, and possession of a weapon. And in 1991, he was sentenced to 40 months to ten years in prison.
For the next two years, he served time in at least four New York correctional facilities. He kept himself busy by taking classes: music, commercial arts, shop, and a course in aggression replacement treatment. His only act of insubordination was refusing to participate in the General Business Program. He could have used it—at the time, he owed the U.S. government $100,000 in back taxes.
The superintendent of the New York Department of Corrections, John O’Keefe, assessed Walters’ overall disciplinary record as “excellent.” By July 1993, the singer was given work-release privileges, which allowed him to live at home and spend his days working on a new album, Behind Bars, for Def Jam. He settled civil lawsuits with both of his victims, gave interviews about the dangers of crime, and talked to wayward youth about his experiences in jail. He told the world he had changed.
“I know I give off the impression like a gangster image, but that is not the person as was in the shell,” he said to a courtroom in 1995. “Within the shell is a person who made a mistake… I’m a better person today. I have responsibilities, you know? I’m ready to face those responsibilities as an adult. I know that the crime that I committed was drastic, and I know that at the time, I wasn’t thinking on a right way of thinking. But I hope that you believe that I’m being sincere, that I’m a changed person.”
His intended target wasn’t. In 1992, Mark Plummer, Walters’ cousin, broke into a house and raped a young boy. The boy’s father shot him to death. For him, at least, the story was over. But Walters is still paying for his crimes.
“They all played a part and got their punishments,” Rick’s wife, Mandy Aragones, tells New Times. “But the problem for Ricky is that his punishment keeps on coming back.”
In 1993, after six months of serving time out of jail on a work-release program, the INS informed Walters that it planned to deport him. Under a 1952 law, an alien convicted of an aggravated felony or of using a firearm can be kicked out of the country. And that’s what the government intended to do. Walters’ work release was discontinued, and he was returned to prison as he waited for the immigration case to make its way through the courts.
It was a year and a half before the case went before a judge, time behind bars that Walters could have spent in the work-release program working on the outside, his wife says.
“Reporting for work release is just urine tests and staying there for six hours. That’s freedom,” Aragones says. “But they brought him back into the system as a criminal, although it was INS time.”
In spring 1995, Walters appeared before New York immigration Judge Alan Vomacka, asking for a special exemption to the 1952 law based on his good behavior, his family ties, and the hardships he would face if he were sent to Britain.
“The only reason why I was even born in England was because my mother and my father at the time went to England for economic reasons, from Jamaica,” he told Vomacka. “I guess because they couldn’t make ends meet in England, they came to America, where the rest of our family was. And that’s where I’ve been since. It’s not like I have a family to go over there to. My son, you know, my business, everything that I’ve loved, everything that I’ve known, everything that I know, learned. I have feelings. I have a family here.”
His lawyers presented a pack of fans and supporters to argue that it was important for the country that Walters stay put.
David Paterson, a New York state senator, appeared at the trial to testify about how Walters was working to “better the lives of our children” by warning them against taking the law into their own hands. Russell Simmons wrote on Walters’ behalf: “He’s a deeply serious artist and I know that he’ll devote himself fulltime to his art as soon as he is allowed to return to it.”
Walters’ parents, grandparents, and cousins begged for a second chance. Adler testified that almost 6,000 people had signed petitions asking for Walters to stay.
Even the lawyer of Wilbert Henry, the bystander Walters had shot, sent in a glowing testimonial. “Mr. Walters, in a deeply sincere expression of remorse, was embraced by Mr. Henry who expressed his forgiveness,” the lawyer wrote. “I was personally touched and as a practitioner of criminal law for some 25 years very impressed. I truly believe that Mr. Walters’ conduct in 1990 was an aberration.”
(Henry’s forgiveness may have had something to do with the $150,000 settlement he received from Walters, though his lawyer didn’t mention it.)
The performance impressed Judge Vomacka, who granted Walters a waiver of deportation. The INS appealed the decision, accusing Vomacka of “abusing his discretion” by granting Walters relief.
“The negative factors in his case outweigh the positive,” wrote Suzanne McGregor, an INS attorney. She pointed out that Walters and Santiago, the mother of his child, were estranged; that Walters’ father hadn’t come to the hearing; and that the rapper had spent his early career “carrying an enormous amount of weaponry on his person, thus creating an extreme danger to the community and ultimately culminating in multiple attempted murders.”
The INS appeal, however, was rebuffed. On November 17, 1995, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) ruled that letting Walters stay “appears to be in the best interests of this country.”
But the INS came back again, asking the BIA to reopen the case based on the length of time Walters had spent in custody, pointing to a law requiring that only aliens who had spent less than five years in jail were eligible for relief from deportation.
The long appeals and delays in the case had added time to Walters’ days in prison, and the month before the BIA ruled on the initial appeal, the rapper had passed his fifth anniversary behind bars. The new INS appeal, however, didn’t dwell on how much of Walters’ time in prison had been a result of the government’s own slow prosecution of the case, including numerous delays.
“I think they were dragging their feet in the case,” says Ira Kurzban, one of Walters’ lawyers. “I think there’s no question about that.”
This time, the appeals board agreed with the INS and ordered Walters deported. His attorneys cried foul, arguing that the INS could have presented evidence about Walters’ time served in custody before the case had closed, and that reopening the case was a violation of due process. For another three years, the case dragged on as Walters’ attorneys tried to convince judges that the INS had cheated Walters by keeping him in jail unnecessarily long and then asking that he be deported for spending so much time behind bars.
In 1996, however, the sweeping new Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act had become law, preventing aliens from appealing deportation orders in federal court. Two years later, Walters’ appeal was denied.
Nearing the end of his parole and newly married to Mandy Aragones, Walters stopped fighting. Technically, the deportation order was still on the books. But he says he was told by INS officials that they wouldn’t ever try to forcibly deport him.
“When I was in jail, Immigration came to visit me,” he says about his interactions with the INS in the late 1990s. “When they came about to visit me, they decided not to bother to push immigration issues at all.”
The government won’t comment on whether Walters was ever informed that he wouldn’t be forced to leave. In fact, it won’t discuss the case at all. Spokesmen at Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Justice, as well as lawyers who have written the government’s briefs, all refused to talk to New Times about why they are so intent on getting Walters deported.
But before 9/11, lots of aliens like Walters were subject to standing orders of deportation that nobody ever acted on. It was understood that unless the INS actively went after you, you could probably stay in the country indefinitely.
But by June of 2002, the world had changed.
Around 7 a.m. on a June day in 2002, Walters was jolted awake by the sounds of policemen banging on his stateroom door. He was aboard a cruise ship docked in the Port of Miami, and he was still groggy after a late night of raising money for Tom Joyner’s charity fund.
Aragones opened the door to find two agents from U.S. Customs there to escort Walters off the Royal Caribbean cruise ship and into the arms of the Department of Homeland Security.
It wasn’t the first time Slick Rick had cruised from Miami. In 2000 and 2001, he’d taken similar trips.
“Every year, you go on the same cruise,” he says. “You’re not going to get the impression that you’re going to get deported for going on the cruise with everybody else.”
But this time, customs officers walked him off the cruise ship in front of the same crowd that had spent the week applauding him as he raised money for black college students. After spending two hours in a customs holding area, Walters was arrested.
“They told me, ‘There’s something wrong with your reentering into America’ and that they would have to detain me until it was figured out,” Walters says. “I was under the impression that it wasn’t going to be a long thing. Worst-case scenario: maybe a couple of days.”
Then he was told that there was an immigration warrant calling for his arrest. “They asked him if he wanted to go to London right then,” Aragones remembers. “They would ship him out within ten days.”
When Walters refused, he was loaded into a car and sent for detainment.
“It was all superscary,” Aragones says. “When they actually took him, I watched him leave, and I was hysterical. I was crying, he was crying, and the officer that was actually with Rick—we were both so emotional that even the officer looked a little teary-eyed.”
After a few days of being held in Miami’s Krome Detention Center, he was told he was going someplace new.
“I just woke up one day and they said that they were moving me to another place,” he says.
He was put on a bus with bars on the windows. His hands and feet were shackled to a chain around his waist. For hours, he jostled along Florida roads, not knowing where he was going or how long he would be there.
He was headed to the Bradenton Detention Center on the western flank of Florida, where he would be held while the newly formed Department of Homeland Security exhumed his immigration case in a post-9/11 world.
Back in Miami, Aragones was frantic. She hired a Miami immigration attorney named Alex Solomiany.
“No one told us anything about being arrested if he left the country,” she says. “They were supposed to say something, but they never, ever did. The whole time he was on parole, the warrant was never served. He owns property. We’ve lived where we’ve lived since he’s been out. Why didn’t they tell us? Why did they arrest him now?”
“I’m just assuming that it’s because of everything that’s going on now and they’re trying to tighten the security,” Walters says.
Two years ago, Solomiany brought in additional muscle from Ira Kurzban, a lawyer who had represented Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Kurzban says that Walters was one of the first of many aliens who suddenly caught the government’s attention after 9/11, when the agency that had replaced the INS under the new Homeland Security Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, integrated its records with the FBI’s computer system, he says.
“We have a lot of people who traveled out before September 11 and nothing ever happened,” he says. “And then they traveled out again on what may have been their 35th trip out, and now because of the integration of Immigration’s system with the FBI’s system, all old criminal convictions come up at customs.
“I think, though, that it’s hard for somebody to understand when they’ve traveled so many times,” Kurzban says. “At the time it happened to Ricky, it wasn’t common. He had an outstanding order of deportation, and although it’s not that typical, the government had the right to take him into custody.”
Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyer’s Association, says officials weren’t under any obligation to warn Walters.
“There’s no right for immigrants in that sense,” she says. “He’s assumed to know that if he lost his appeal, the original order stands.”
By the time he arrived at Bradenton, Walters was a detained alien with an uncertain future. A ghost in a blue jumper, he floated through the Florida prison awaiting his fate.
One of only two facilities in Florida specifically reserved for immigration detainees, Bradenton was in bad shape during the 17 months Walters spent there. It has since been closed because federal and county governments couldn’t agree to pay for its upkeep.
“It was such a filthy, filthy facility,” says Aragones, who flew down from New York often to see Walters. “It was so old. When Rick was there, his condition was horrible—his hair, his face, his nails. He got one jumper per week, and they often had nasty white stains on them, if you know what I mean.”
“It was dark, and it was cold,” Walters says. “The lower levels had bunk beds, so it was like 60 to 80 people sleeping on top of each other. The toilet facilities didn’t have doors, so if you had to take a number two, everybody had to see you and smell you.”
Over the months in Bradenton, the eye patch Walters was wearing when he was arrested began to disintegrate. (He usually changes them every week.) But prison officials wouldn’t let his family bring him a new one.
“They wouldn’t let me have a new one because they said they had to have come from a doctor,” he says. “I only had one the whole time. What I ended up doing was not wearing it at all.”
“A year later, he had this filthy patch,” Aragones says. “An eye patch! He needed it just hygiene-wise.”
Even more depressing than the conditions was the state of the other inmates.
“It wasn’t a very friendly place, because everybody was desperate to stay in the country,” Walters says. “You saw people being torn from their families. Sometimes, when people wouldn’t want to leave, they would hold on to things. It was very gloomy, very sad.”
For a time, it looked like Walters didn’t have a way out. In late 2002, Aragones flew over to Britain to prepare a new life for her soon-to-be deported husband.
“She went over there and packed everything, suitcases and everything,” Walters says. “She flew over there and stayed in a hotel until she found an apartment.”
Meanwhile, Walters’ fans and supporters rallied around a “Free Slick Rick” campaign. Russell Simmons and Will Smith wrote letters to the government on his behalf. T-shirts and petitions appeared overnight. His lawyers filed four separate appeals arguing that he couldn’t have deported himself that day in Miami.
In fall 2003, one of his three petitions for habeas corpus found a sympathetic ear in Judge Kimba M. Wood of the Southern District of New York. Wood, of course, was famous for her own moment in the immigration spotlight when, ten years earlier, she had been the second of Bill Clinton’s nominees for U.S. attorney general to withdraw her nomination because she’d hired an illegal immigrant as a nanny. (Zoe Baird was the first). Janet Reno eventually filled the post.
Wood ruled that the INS had violated the law when it reopened Walters’ case in 1995. “When the BIA considered the ‘new’ evidence in ordering briefing on the five year issue, this resulted in a fundamentally unfair hearing in that it afforded the INS a second bite at the apple,” she wrote. “Just as an alien must present his case in full before the BIA for its review, the INS must be expected to do so.”
She invalidated Walters’ deportation order, and a week later, he walked out of the Bradenton facility. For the third time in a decade, a New York court had ruled that Slick Rick could stay in the USA. But Florida kept calling.
These days, Ricky Walters spends most of his time changing light bulbs, taking out the garbage, and making sure the hallways are clean in the two three-family buildings he owns in the Bronx.
“I play the landlord role,” he says. “I guess the hardest job is that sometimes, when a tenant moves out, you have to redo the entire apartment. Change the rugs, the sink, everything. That can cost a pretty penny. Sometimes you get bad tenants. Then you just have to follow the lease.”
He still plays shows and benefits and still makes people stand up and scream along to “La-Di-Da-Di.” He often comes to South Florida for shows and to visit his family in Fort Lauderdale. Throughout the 1990s, he released several more albums, several of them directly inspired by his experiences behind bars. But they never lived up to his first.
“I remember that every Slick Rick album that came out after was a bigger and bigger disappointment,” hip-hop author Chang says. “His later records tended to be a lot less focused. He never really recaptured the glory of his first record.”
Lately, Walters hasn’t found much inspiration from his predicament. Even his wife describes him as “just above water with regards to celebrity.”
“I have a little studio in my apartment, and I dibble and dabble,” Walters says. “But when you get older in rap, you don’t want to talk about the same old stuff. You really don’t want to sound like somebody trying desperately to stay in the country all the time.”
But any day now, he’s expecting to be told to pack up and move to England and never come back.
After losing in 2003, the government appealed Judge Wood’s decision, attacking every angle of Walters’ case. The complex legal argument has many parts, but the one that appears strongest is very simple. Because Walters was arrested in Florida in 2002, the government says the New York courts that have repeatedly ruled in favor of Walters don’t have jurisdiction over the case. Walters’ fate, the government says, should be decided in Florida’s 11th Circuit, which just happens to be one of the most conservative courts in the nation. This fall, a New York court agreed, and the case is currently being sent to Florida’s court system, where Walters will likely lose.
No court date has been set, but Walters’ attorneys continue to raise objections to the change of venue.
“Basically, they’re passing the buck,” says Solomiany, one of Walters’ attorneys. “We’ve been successful [in New York] arguing our case. They could have ruled on it. They had all the evidence they needed to make an informed decision.
“The government is obviously forum-shopping, because they know that the 11th Circuit is the most government-friendly circuit in America when it comes to immigration matters,” says Kurzban, Walters’ other lawyer.
What bothers Walters isn’t so much that he might lose. He long ago resigned himself to his possible fate as an exile from America. “I would try to hook up with a record label over there and pretty much do my thing over there,” he says. “I would let Mandy go back and forth to take care of the apartments.”
What really troubles him and his lawyers is the fact that the government has gone to such lengths to win.
“It is difficult to understand why the government would be fighting this case as hard as they could,” Kurzban says. “To me, the troubling aspect of it is that he is a person who in many respects has been rehabilitated, and you have both the immigration judges and the BIA saying that, on the merits, this man is deserving of this kind of relief. A prosecutor has some duty to not only be tough but to be reasonable. In many respects, the problem with this case is that it exemplifies the lack of reasonableness of the prosecutors.”
One of ICE’s arguments is that immigration courts have the “inherent power to reopen and reconsider” cases whenever ICE says that any evidence is “erroneous”—even after the cases are closed. Immigration used this power when it persuaded the BIA to rerule on Walters’ closed case, and if Walters loses, it will become the law of the land. “This gives Immigration free reign to introduce evidence whenever they want,” Solomiany says. “There’s really no closure to a case. You’d always be looking behind your back waiting for them to bring something else up.”
“It will mean that the government could theoretically open a case any time it wanted to,” Kurzban adds. “It is a big deal.”
In other words, if Walters loses his case, it would confirm that double jeopardy is acceptable in immigration cases.
One of the most well-known concepts in criminal law, even people on the street will tell you that someone acquitted of a crime (O.J. Simpson may be the classic modern example) can’t be tried again criminally for the same offense. But ICE claims the power to do just that in immigration cases.
“Immigration is a completely different animal,” says Butterfield, director of the Immigration Lawyer’s Association. “People have fewer rights. Not only do you pay your debt to society through the criminal justice system, which we usually consider to be the end of the matter, but you often become an exile.”
“Do you see the logic now?” Walters asks. “We’re talking about something that happened 16 years ago. I’ve spent more time fighting Immigration than my actual crime itself. I’ve spent more time in prison not for committing the crime but for fighting to stay in America.”
The moral of the story? Walters may have written it himself, back in 1989, before he pulled a trigger that derailed his life and his career. “A Children’s Story” ends with its well-known homily:
Just another case ’bout the wrong path
Straight ‘n’ narrow or yo’ soul gets cast.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 9, 2007