In a World of Hurst

Imagine this:
The person you love has AIDS. He's also in prison for theft. They're not going to let him out, even though the person he stole from didn't want him to go to prison. Even though the person he stole from married him after he went to prison.

Imagine that person is you.
Christina Hurst doesn't have to imagine.
At the age of 35, she's already lived a couple of lives. She was an alcoholic and a drug addict. She was a hooker on Van Buren. Through what seems like sheer will power, she got clean and went to school. Now she works as a Women's HIV Task Force Representative for Phoenix Body Positive.

It was during her turning-around period that she met Arthur Hurst.
They met at the start of the decade, and hoped it would herald a new start for their lives. Both were in recovery and were trying to get their lives back together. Things happened fast between them. Christina became pregnant almost immediately, and their daughter was born in April 1991.

Then Arthur heard that a former girlfriend had died as a result of AIDS. He got tested and was diagnosed as HIV positive.

The news caused him to relapse. "He was thinking, 'I'm going to die anyway--might as well use drugs again,'" says Christina. She stayed sober, and her support helped him get sober again. "He went into a drug-treatment facility for people with HIV. We worked things out . . ."

Arthur left the treatment facility and moved into Christina's house. Things were good. Then, she says, "Something happened, I don't know what. He was having a real hard time because he wasn't well enough to work. He went on social security." It took a while for that to come through. "He went for about a year without an income, and he had a real hard time with the fact that I was supporting him and that I was taking care of our daughter. We were living off my student loans, federal grants and AFDC--every public assistance program that was available--to get me through school. That was Arthur's dream, too, for me to finish school. That was real important to him. When he had to quit working and go on social security, he had a hard time with it, so he relapsed again."

This was where it stopped being a movie romance. "At that point, I had been sober for three years," says Christina. "I told him that he had to leave the house, because we had a 3-year-old and I couldn't risk having a person using drugs in my house."

He moved out. But he left with a stereo and VCR, and tickets for a Pink Floyd concert that Christina had bought. She called the cops and charged him with theft.

She admits she was angry, but she also rationalizes her action. "I'd bought the tickets on a credit card, so if I filed a police report, Dillard's would replace them. So I filed the report, and it was the worst thing I've ever done."

Arthur went to Colorado, where he checked himself into a rehab center that caters to HIV-positive drug users.

"He wanted to come back here after he'd gotten himself straightened out, and I agreed. He turned himself in to the courts there and let them know where he was. He knew there was a warrant out for him and he wanted to take care of it. So the police went to Colorado and got him.

"They took him back to Phoenix while he was on a methadone program. They took him to Arpaio's lovely palace downtown and let him detox off the methadone. Just cold turkey--threw him in a cell. He was there for almost nine months. No medical treatment, no nothing. His T-cells at that point were 150." A person in normal health will have a T-cell count of about 1,000. Centers for Disease Control define a person with a T-cell count of less than 200 as suffering from full-blown AIDS.

Arthur went to court three times, and three times his case was continued because no public defender showed up to represent him. Finally, Christina and Arthur's mother came up with $3,000 to hire an attorney.

"We wanted to go to trial, we wanted to fight it because they were offering us 10 years because he had one prior conviction. That was for attempted drug possession. It happened when he was first getting sober, and he didn't even have drugs on him. He had drug paraphernalia. He pleaded guilty to that, and was on probation for it. So they labeled him a repeat offender. They have mandatory sentencing in Arizona, so they wanted to give him 10 years. We wanted to take it to trial, but the attorney couldn't take it to trial for less than $5,000. He wanted $5,000 to even touch it."  

So an arrangement was made for a plea agreement. It was hoped that the sentence would be three to six years. If he got a three-year sentence, he would probably only have to serve a year, as he'd already been held in the county jail for nearly a year. "That was the best we could get for 3,000 bucks," says Christine.

The mitigation hearing was held on April 4, 1995. April Fools' Day would have been a more appropriate date, because the hearing was a sick joke. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Michael O'Melia displayed the coherence of Beavis and Butt-head and the sensitivity of Archie Bunker. Hurst's attorney goes by the name of James Bond, but there was nothing heroic or wily about his performance.

Because of Arthur Hurst's illness, the courtroom was cleared, as though observers might have been infected with HIV by sitting in the same room as him.

Two witnesses testified. First up was Cindy Jasman, executive director of Phoenix Shanti Group, an organization that provides services for people with HIV and AIDS. She told the court that it was common for people with a history of drug abuse to relapse when first diagnosed with HIV. She added that it was just as common for such people to then pull themselves together. O'Melia offered several snide taunts during her testimony. When she said that, statistically, Arthur Hurst had about 36 months to live, the judge said, "I think that everybody knows that this [the sentence he would pass on Hurst] is a life sentence." When speaking of the witness, he said, "Yeah, I don't know how she can tell us how long somebody is going to live or not live, I mean, and I don't know that any records or any census bureau or any statistics I've seen correlate." He felt able to confidently predict a person's death, but denied that an expert witness might be able to.

Ultimately, though, O'Melia's arrogance didn't matter. Even though he wouldn't accept that Jasman could predict how long a person with AIDS might reasonably expect to live, she didn't have to convince him that Arthur Hurst was effectively on death row--he believed it already. Trouble was, he didn't care. Even though Christina, the victim in the case, testified in Hurst's defense, saying that he was paying her for the items he'd stolen from her, that she'd been visiting him in jail, that he would have a stable and supportive home to go to--hers--if he wasn't incarcerated, O'Melia sentenced him to five years.

Passing the sentence, O'Melia talked about Bond's request that Hurst be given probation. "I don't think I can," he said. "I mean, I don't think I would. I'll say that for the record. . . . I don't think you're going to get out of prison alive." Rambling as he had throughout the hearing, the judge concluded, "I should say for the record, that I didn't really quite say, I will find that the mitigating circumstances I talked about outweigh the aggravating circumstances."

A death sentence for theft.
Arthur was imprisoned in Tucson. Christina married him in prison in February 1996.

At first, the only treatment he was given for his illness was AZT, a controversial medication that he had already been taking for several years. Single-drug treatment is now anachronistic in AIDS health care; drugs in combination have been found to get the best results, with protease inhibitors leading the way. With single-drug treatment, or primitive drug combinations, Hurst got sick again and again, suffering diarrhea and fainting spells.

He also had two broken teeth. Instead of capping them, the prison pulled nearly all of his teeth. "He has eight teeth in front, and that's all," says his wife. "In the process of pulling out his teeth, they fractured a piece of his jaw, and it's protruding from his mouth. Now, 18 months later, they haven't done anything about it. They say it's a normal thing to happen. If it happened outside prison, that dentist would be looking at a malpractice suit by now."

Christina wrote stacks of letters to the Department of Corrections, even offering to pay for her husband to get better medicines. State Representative Christine Weason took up her cause, writing to Terry Stewart, the DOC's director. Stewart simply denied everything, claiming that the treatment Hurst was receiving was adequate and typical. In a letter to Weason, he wrote, "I believe Ms. Hurst simply objects to the health care the Department is providing, and her propensity to criticize our actions will continue as long as the inmate is incarcerated."  

Then, in October 1996, it looked as though sanity might finally prevail. The state Board of Executive Clemency voted to recommend that Hurst's sentence be commuted to two years. If the request was granted by the governor, Hurst would have been released to community supervision. The application was sent to Fife Symington.

Things looked promising. Symington had granted commutations for drug dealers and violent criminals. The board's application on behalf of Hurst stated that he had an excellent support system awaiting his release, that he was terminally ill, that he had never been violent and that he had been of good behavior in prison.

Symington denied the request.
"That was all--just one word, denied," says Christina.
She called the Governor's Office to ask for an explanation. Her calls were never returned. Finally, she called Symington while he was on a KFYI radio talk show. He said he'd denied the commutation because Hurst was a threat to public safety.

Drug dealers and armed thugs don't threaten the public safety, but a dying man does.

"It's obvious that the 'public safety' issue here is that my husband has AIDS," Christina says.

The situation was the stuff of satirical novels--a big-time criminal denying clemency to a small-time one. Arthur Hurst stole property valued at $2,920. Symington stole millions through fraud.

When Symington was convicted of seven felonies, Christina Hurst and her daughter were in the courtroom. Christina cried with happiness.

But Symington, though his crimes are far more serious than Arthur Hurst's, will never suffer as much. Symington has never seen the inside of a jail cell. Hurst, guilty of not having enough money to make bail, lost his freedom for nine months before he was sentenced. Symington, awaiting his sentence in February, took a vacation with his family. Arthur Hurst, dying, remains in prison, wondering if he'll have any time with his wife and little girl before he dies.

It would be naive to portray Arthur Hurst as any kind of a saint, or to suggest that he's any more of a victim than any other inmate. He has messed up his life on just about every possible level. His drug problems led him to steal. Either you accept that as an excuse or you don't.

And our present justice system doesn't. This system, shaped largely by Fife Symington, holds everyone responsible for what he does, regardless of the conditions of his life.

But that system must include everyone, and it certainly must include the man responsible for it.

Symington has said that crime is caused by criminals, not social deprivation. He's made a bed of nails, and now he has to lie in it. If Symington is not in prison by Easter, one of the most heinous crimes in Arizona's history will have been committed by U.S. District Court Judge Roger Strand.


Contact Barry Graham at his online address:

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