Fences and guard dogs surround Jerry Span's house on Fillmore Street, an effort to keep the rotting, increasingly destitute neighborhood that surrounds him at bay.

The house has been sheathed in scaffolding as Span tries to restore what was once his family's grand downtown home, a place were he, his parents and nine other siblings gathered for special occasions and long evening conversations.

Steel and wood, however, are less binding than other forces that circumscribe Jerry Span's life.

Four years ago, Jerry and his sister Darlene suffered what many eyewitnesses consider a gross miscarriage of justice. The brother and sister were convicted of resisting arrest after they and their parents were roughed up by two federal marshals who came to the family business mistakenly in search of a fugitive.

The Spans' case skipped briefly through the public spotlight back then, prompting protests outside the courthouse. Five members of the 12-person jury that convicted them even signed statements after the trial, saying they didn't believe the marshals' testimony. The jurors said they felt they had no choice but to convict Darlene and Jerry, though, given the way the trial judge explained the law to them.

Storied Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz stepped in to handle the appeal, and most assumed that the case would ultimately be set right.

But since then, the Spans have learned that real courts are not like L.A. Law, where justice is neatly wrapped up on the hour.

Instead, they have found themselves in a withering war of attrition with the government, a battle that has destroyed them emotionally and financially.

Even though they face relatively lenient sentences--probation, house arrest and fines--the Spans steadfastly refuse to give in to their prosecutors. They are simply innocent, the Spans say, and each passing year and lost legal battle has fueled their fervor for justice.

While Darlene and Jerry have fought their criminal convictions, the entire family has been enmeshed in a protracted legal battle with the City of Phoenix over compensation for valuable family land that the city condemned near Sky Harbor Airport.

Although unrelated, the two legal fronts have totally consumed Darlene and Jerry's lives.

Jerry, who will turn 60 this year, has responded to the adversity with an almost childlike surrender, biding his time at the old family house, attempting to rebuild a past gone forever.

"Here you are, a good man, a good person, and then someone comes along and calls you a criminal," he says. "They don't care if you're innocent or not. They make you out guilty."
For Darlene, weeks away from turning 45, the legal battles have become an obsession, a full-time hunt for proof of some grand conspiracy or scheme that will allow her to understand what has happened to her.

"This has destroyed the whole family. Every single one of us," she says. "There is no life for us anymore."
In her relentless pursuit of vindication, Darlene has sometimes hurt her cause rather than helped it, say some who have represented the Spans along the way.

She can be alternately pleading and belligerent, and her unbridled insistence on controlling the case has alienated people who have tried to help her.

"At the first deposition, I quit," says one attorney who has represented the Spans in one action. He rejoined the case, he says, "but I quit four more times along the way."
A psychologist hired by one of the Spans' attorneys for a civil lawsuit diagnosed both Darlene and Jerry as suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a psychological affliction most commonly associated with Vietnam War veterans.

"This was a classic case of injustice," says Gerald Pollock, one of the string of attorneys who have tried to help the Spans. "It was a painful experience. You believe in the case so much, and you believe in the system. But this time the system doesn't work."
Since the incident with the marshals, both of the Spans' parents have died. Darlene and Jerry have managed to put off serving their sentences while appealing their convictions.

But the delays may finally end later this month, when the Spans are due back in federal court. They will find out then if there is still any chance to clear their names, and whether they will ultimately lose a six-year legal battle that has slowly sapped away everything that once mattered to them.

@body:The Spans are an unusually close family, built on twin pillars of opportunism and hard labor. Virginia and Bill Span moved their growing brood to Phoenix in the early 1950s, when the city was "young and little," as Jerry recalls it. Over time the family became something of a local institution.

Spans sold concessions and drinks at sporting events and operated a popular Christmas-tree lot. Parents and kids worked side by side as the ten children grew up.

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David Pasztor