Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Palestine defendants all black, state records sealed

I drove up to Palestine, Texas with reporter Dave Mann of The Texas Observer to check out the massive drug task force bust I reported on Sunday. While by agreement for his help I won't scoop him on certain items, I can sadly report that the case fulfills many stereotypes about how these drug task forces function.

First, all 72 defendants are black -- every last mother's son and daughter of them. In Tulia only 39 of the 46 were black. In Palestine, they've made it unanimous. While I wasn't given a complete list, a DA's employee showed me the full list while he was copying by hand the names he would give me. I had enough time to read down the race/gender column on both pages twice, just to make sure -- the list said B/M or B/F on every last one, including the names that weren't checked as releasable to me.

Second, many of the defendants have no significant criminal record. Although an assistant district attorney (who it turns out, went to my high school in Tyler) assured me that "these are people we see in and out of the system all the time," and that "we know these people," that wasn't true for the majority for whom we checked criminal records. More detail on that later from Dave Mann.

Third, the records were still sealed, even for those already in custody!, including both the indictments and search warrant affidavits (which are supposed to public after they're executed except in "sneak and peek" searches by federal spooks). Neither the DA nor the drug task force would reveal information about the three residences and other property they claim to have seized. The DA's office promised to mail copies of all the indictments later this week, but it will probably take another trip or an open records request to get the other stuff.

Fourth, the prosecutors we talked to were careful to not say all these people were "selling" crack. Instead they'd say they engaged in drug "distribution." Without having seen the documents, that tells me they're splitting hairs to include people as "dealers" who may not have profited from the transaction.

Fifth, as was the case in Tulia, the task force targeted multiple members of particular families. Alan Bean of
Tulia Friends of Justice tells me that some of these family names, but not the same individuals, were included in another large Dogwood Trails task force bust in 2001.

Finally, in an ugly media moment, large chunks of the
Palestine Herald-Press article quoted in my Sunday post turn out to have been reprinted nearly verbatim from the Dogwood Trails Task Force own press release. Uugh. And we wonder why the public lays down and lets this stuff happen! (I'll post a side-by-side of the two pieces later this week when I get a chance.)

Meanwhile, the
Tyler paper covered the arraignment of a handful of the defendants in federal court yesterday. I'm going to be in Tyler soon to visit my father, so I'll get a look at that federal material in depth then, but they did reveal a few new items worth mentioning.
  • Although one of the five federal defendants was caught with large amounts of coke and crack, at least one other was only charged with distributing less than a gram. That's a rare federal charge. That person was released on bond because of health problems.
  • The US Attorney is tacking on a "conspiracy" charge to the drug charges.
  • The case started when the task force busted someone with a large amount of crack on Highway 45, which runs up near Palestine from Houston. Instead of arresting that person, they sent him on his way with the crack as a confidential informant, and apparently chose to let crack continue to be distributed into Anderson county through "various sources" since November 2002!
  • ALL those indicted are from Anderson County, so what they didn't do was track the drugs upstream to the source of the drugs. They only cared about little, local fish.


JENGER said...

I love this, thank you so much for the information. I am producing a documentary. Great info, wonderful coverage. Keep up the good work.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks, Jenger. What's your documentary about?