A Santa Barbara gang member already serving a 17-year prison term for attempted murder was sentenced Tuesday to an additional 40 years to life behind bars for a separate attempted murder that took place in jail. Supporters of Erick Roman, however, claim he is yet another piece of collateral damage in a racist justice system and that he deserves his freedom.
In 2010, Roman, along with two other Eastside gang members, pleaded guilty to a 2007 attack on a rival Westside gang member. The three used knives and a bat to stab and beat the victim. While in jail in 2011, Roman, now 27, attacked another inmate with a razor blade. That victim sustained cuts to his head and a laceration to his neck that nearly sliced his jugular. “He’s lucky he wasn’t killed,” said prosecutor Hans Almgren, who handled both cases.
Almgren said the jail slashing may have been prompted by an area gang rivalry or a dispute over orders given by the Sureños, an organization of Latino gangs throughout Southern California that typically holds sway over smaller street gangs. “Mr. Roman, in my opinion, is just an unsuccessful killer,” said Almgren, explaining Judge Brian Hill had no choice but to sentence him to a decades-long prison term, because he is a true “danger to society.” Roman was convicted of the attempted-murder charge after a jury trial.
Throughout his cases and court hearings, Roman has been supported by a sizable group of friends, family, and Latino-rights advocates. Before a scheduled hearing on November 18, PODER (People Organized for the Defense & Equal Rights of S.B. Youth) staged a small vigil outside the courthouse to protest Roman’s sentencing and demand fair trials for people of color. The supporters said the criminal justice system is rigged against minorities and that white defendants are given more lenient punishments compared to their brown-skinned peers.
In a press statement distributed before the vigil, PODER claimed Latinos face exaggerated charges based on “speculation, hearsay, and unreliable informants.” They also said Latinos face jail and prison sentences that are four times longer than the terms given to white defendants. “A fight between two individuals while in jail turns into a case of attempted murder, although alleged victim required a band-aid,” the statement reads in reference to Roman’s case. “Defendant is also alleged to have participated in street terrorism although he was behind bars during the incident.”
PODER ticked off three criminal cases against unnamed Latinos and the prosecution of two white defendants as evidence of sentencing discrepancies: “An 18 year old Latino was given a deal of 3 strikes, 2 felonies and registering as a gang member in order to be released,” they claimed. “A 20 year old [sic] Latino was arrested for drug possession was offered a deal to drop his drug charges if registering as a gang member although he was not a gang member.” And in a third case, they said, “Defendants face 57 years to life for an alleged robbery where a cell phone, iPod and a wallet were taken.”
The press release then pointed to the cases of Keith Keiper, who threw a Molotov cocktail at the Isla Vista Foot Patrol’s headquarters in 2012 but was ultimately released from jail bail-free, and bank robber Raymond Davenport, who took a plea deal that resulted in a 13-year prison term.
Cindy Gonzalez, one of Roman’s cousins and a student at UC Berkley, was present for the modest event last month. Several of the demonstrators wore shirts that read “Free My Primo.” Gonzalez noted that Roman was convicted by an all-white jury and underscored that his jail victim suffered only minor injuries. Roman, she said, immigrated to the United States when he was 9 years old and had been deported back to Mexico at one point. She said he has an adopted 8-year-old son. Joanna, Roman’s 7-year-old niece, was also in attendance. “My uncle is Erick Roman,” she said. “He is nice and caring. Please free my uncle.”