If Dawn Stensland Can’t Get Justice in This Town, Who Can?

Three years after her minivan was stolen, the accused blows off his third court date.

The wheels of justice move insufferably slow in the city of Philadelphia, especially when it comes to the omnipresent, non-violent, low-level crimes that can make a city close to unlivable.

My wife is getting a first-hand look at why criminals prosper, while victims, police and prosecutors surrender in frustration to a system that is so porous, criminals easily can go free simply by choosing to not show up to court. Justice? I’d rather not.

My wife is Dawn Stensland-Mendte, former FOX29 news anchor and host of the talk show Dawn on Philadelphia’s WMCN. Over three years ago her minivan was stolen from our attached garage in the middle of the night. Dawn’s iPhone was in the van and by using Apple’s “find my phone” feature, we were able to track the vehicle. Police found fingerprints all over the ransacked glove compartment that led them to Carlos Caez, who lives on the block of Hunting Park in Philadelphia where the van was found.

It was quick and effective police work, but then the case entered the Twilight Zone of Philadelphia District court where time stands still. One year later my wife was in court with our 4-year-old David (his toys were in the van, so he’s a victim too), only to be told that Caez, yet again, couldn’t make it. This would be the third time that my wife, the victim, showed up to court and Caez, the accused, couldn’t make time in his busy schedule to be there. Another wasted day, another meaningless bench warrant issued.

Only this time it wasn’t meaningless. After I wrote how these bench warrants “pile up like unpaid parking tickets” on May 12 of 2011, the police picked up Caez the next week. Finally, the flat wheels of justice have been fixed and this case can speed through district court.

I’d like to be able to report to you that after two years, Caez has served his time and is now leaving the prison system a changed man. But, not only has Caez not been to prison, he still hasn’t shown up to court. This week, yet again, my wife showed up to court, for the sixth time now, and again, no Carlos Caez.

To dismiss this as a small matter is to ignore the much bigger picture. Dawn’s case is one of tens of thousands. For every one of those cases, there are prosecutors, public defenders, judges and court employees, whose salaries are paid by our tax dollars. In the hallway of district court are dozens of police officers taken off the street to testify against criminals who never show up for their cases.

As one frustrated police officer put it, “The bad guys figured out a long time ago that the best way to avoid prison is to not show up in court.” It seems the injustice my wife is experiencing may be at the grassroots of the city’s biggest problems; crime, wasted resources, inefficiency is all on display in district court.

In the case of the stolen minivan, it is now just a waiting game. After taking off work, paying for parking and putting up with the hassle of waiting for a court proceeding that doesn’t happen because the accused hasn’t shown up, most victims stop showing up too. “That’s what the criminals count on,” said the cop who does not want to be named. “This happens every day in Philly. It gets to the point where some cops don’t even want to make arrests on car thefts or smash and grabs because you end up spending more time in a courtroom hallway than the criminal does in prison.”

Resignation to the court’s impotency by both citizens and officers is where justice in Philadelphia breaks down. If Carlos Caez is counting on that, he doesn’t know Dawn. “I am not a vindictive person, but I do believe in justice. I have two choices — to keep showing up to court and believe in the system, or to leave Philadelphia to keep my family safe. I’m not ready to leave.”

Another Bench warrant was issued this week. A new trial date has not been set, but I can assure you, Dawn will be there waiting for Carlos, who has been taught by a broken system that the best way to avoid justice in Philadelphia is to just ignore it and it will go away.