Despite a unanimous ruling by the Arizona Court of Appeals that Wilson has been held illegally since July 2019, it has taken months to reach Tuesday’s final decision allowing him to walk free yesterday.
by Levi Stallings, Meteor staff reporter
Saturday, October 24, 2020
After being held in jail for more than a year without bond, Neko Wilson was released by Navajo County in response to a successful hearing earlier this week. Despite a unanimous ruling by the Arizona Court of Appeals saying that Wilson has been held illegally since July 2019, it has taken months to reach Tuesday’s final decision allowing him to walk free yesterday.
In a statement to Arizona Central before today’s release, Wilson’s brother and San Francisco public defender Jacque Wilson expressed frustration over the long wait.
“This truly feels like vindictive prosecution and delay. Neko and my family are absolutely devastated,”said Wilson. “How is this not cruel and unusual punishment?”
Tuesday’s arguments may show that the long delay faced by Wilson goes against the eighth amendment, and could set a new precedent forcing judges to consider the circumstances of the offence when setting bail for prisoners who break probation instead of holding them without bond.
Wilson’s lawyer, Lee Phillips, filed a special action before the Arizona Supreme Court arguing that Wilson’s 2009 probation case should have been served concurrently to an earlier sentence in California, since the violation occurred as a result of his California arrest.
Wilson was held without bail even though he hasn’t been charged in over a decade before his arrest last year. He was initially arrested in 2009 for his involvement with a robbery that ended with the murders of two people, but wasn’t present or aware of the killings when they took place. Eventually these charges were dropped and Wilson served time in California for his role planning the robbery.
As a 38-year old with severe asthma and hypertension, Wilson was also at a higher risk to COVID-19 during his incarceration, continually expressing concern over the inadequate protection and testing offered by Navajo County Jail. No regular reports of the numbers of prisoners who’ve tested positive have been available since earlier this summer when a statement from the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office reported five cases within the population of 218 inmates.
During the time he spent awaiting trial, Wilson reported that Navajo County Jail put prisoners on regular 32 hour lockdowns in order to slow the spread of the pandemic, but a shortage of adequate sanitation supplies left him vulnerable, including a lack of personal protective equipment. Wilson’s own requests for a coronavirus test were repeatedly denied, saying prisoners had to be “almost on the ground” before any medical treatment would be offered.
Staff inside Navajo County Jail were not required to wear masks until June 8, just one month before the surrounding area would suffer the highest spike of coronavirus cases in the country. Prior to Tuesday’s hearing, over 10,000 people signed a Change.org petition demanding Wilson’s release, stating that remaining in jail would be “most likely a death sentence for Neko.”
Before his release, advocates demanded that he be transferred to house arrest for his safety, arguing his case is an example of systemic racism endangering the life of a person of color. These requests were denied.
“We knew Black lives didn’t matter to them in Navajo County,” said Jacque Wilson, referring to the 16 months his brother spent languishing in jail before his release hearing. “Now we know they don’t matter in Arizona either.”
The Equal Justice Initiative has found that prisoners are five times as likely to be infected with coronavirus as the general population. Due to previous decades of harsh sentencing, prisoners tend to be older, with almost half of them over the age of 40, putting many at more serious health risks if infected. As a Black male, Wilson’s demographic represents 34% of the prison population in the United States.
“It is no wonder so many people believe Neko is the victim of a racially motivated vindictive prosecution and has been illegally held in the Navajo County jail for over a year without a release hearing,” said Lee Phillips in an interview with Arizona Central last week. “Neko deserves to have his day in court now.”
It is expected that Wilson will be filing a lawsuit in the coming weeks in response to his prolonged detainment. As one of many low-level offenders who have been put at risk due to inadequate levels of social distancing within prisons, Wilson’s case has drawn attention to the dangers posed by mass incarceration during the coronavirus pandemic.
The decision may change how future bonds are provided for people arrested on probation violations, enabling judges to set bail based on circumstances.