Rene Lima-Marin is Colorado’s own Jean Valjean
[Picture: Rene Lima-Marin speaks during an interview at the Kit Carson Correctional Center on May 7, 2014, about being sent back to prison after being mistakenly released 90 years early. A judge ordered his re-release from prison this week.]
A legal axiom states justice and the law are not always the same. That unfortunate reality forms the basis for Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables.” Hugo’s protagonist, Jean Valjean, served nineteen years in prison for stealing bread before his release. In his new life, Valjean became a pillar of society to the benefit of all around him until his past caught up and confronted him years later.
No man can relate to Valjean more than Rene Lima-Marin.
Earlier this week, justice and the law finally appeared to meet for Lima-Marin. In a lengthy opinion, Chief Arapahoe County District Judge Carlos Samour Jr. ordered Lima-Marin released from prison. But just as he glimpsed the open gate before him, it swiftly swung shut again. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency ordered a hold on the Cuban-born immigrant who arrived in the country as a 2-year-old during the Mariel boatlift in 1980.
Mirroring Valjean’s story, Lima-Marin committed several robberies as a young man in 1998. Though nobody had been hurt, the court issued mandatory consecutive sentences totaling 98 years in prison. The criminal Lima-Marin became the victim of severe sentencing guidelines that made Valjean’s nineteenth century court seem reasonable and lenient.
Eight years later, fate proved to be every bit the author as Hugo. Due to a clerical error, Lima-Marin unexpectedly found himself free. His sentences had been marked to run concurrently, not consecutively. He had renewed life.
That second chance would not have meant much, though, except for what Lima-Marin had done in the intervening eight years. Rather than lose himself in the criminal cycle so prevalent in prions, he made the conscious effort to better himself. As Samour wrote, he “changed his life completely;” he distanced himself from the friend he robbed stores with, got a GED, committed himself to God, and focused on how he could rewrite his own story. Let that sink in. A man with no hope of breathing free air for many years, surrounded by temptation to embrace the worst characteristics of humanity, willingly chose to commit himself to being the man he wished he had been.
When Lima-Marin’s release came in 2008, he did not falter. He worked for the few employers willing to hire a felon, got married, and raised two Cosettes of his own: one step-son and another son from his marriage. He bought a home in Aurora. He became the picture of rehabilitation the criminal justice system claims as its ultimate goal.
Six years later, Lima-Marin’s own Javert came calling. Much like the French policeman who discovered Valjean’s true identity, Lima-Marin’s former prosecutor discovered the error that set Lima-Marin free. Moments like that are when the law and justice collide. Under the law, which the prosecutor swore to uphold, Lima-Marin had to return to prison. That is where his story diverges from Valjean’s and his moral courage outstrips even Hugo’s hero.
While Valjean originally ran, Lima-Marin stood head held high and returned to prison. Rather than gathering his family and fleeing the state, as he could have done at any time in the preceding years, he chose to submit himself to the same system that treated him so unmercifully in the past. Only from behind the bars of his cell did he renew his pursuit of leniency and justice without any promise of success.
In Valjean’s case, Victor Hugo asked, “Whether there had not been more abuse on the part of the law, in respect to the penalty, than there had been on the part of the culprit in respect to his fault?”
While Judge Samour did not comment on the original sentence, he answered the question in regard to Lima-Marin’s continued incarceration. Samour found that the “government acted with conscience-shocking deliberate indifference in re-incarcerating Lima-Marin” and decided there “is a way for the Court to dispense justice in this case: by ordering the release of Lima-Marin.”
For a brief instant, it seemed the law bent a little in favor of justice. And then ICE, further detainment, and possible deportment blotted the moment out. Hugo wrote, “The sea is the inexorable social night into which the penal laws fling their condemned.” It will be a tragedy if Lima-Marin is cast back into the sea from which he had emerged.
Mario Nicolais of Lakewood is a constitutional scholar and managing partner of KBN Law firm. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq