Thursday, August 31, 2006

Help Restorative Justice Ministries!

The Restorative Justice Ministries Network (RJMN) office in Huntsville was torched!

RJMN is a statewide, grassroots network of local church prison ministries that plays a role the state of Texas ought to pay for but doesn't. (I've blogged about RJMN before, attentive readers will recall.)

Headquartered in Huntsville, the group connects ex-convicts with social networks and services when they leave prison. Their leader, former TDCJ head prison chaplain Emmett Solomon, is one of the most gentle, good-hearted people you'd ever hope to meet and a genuine "compassionate conservative." Read below about their current, dire situation. I don't usually suggest donations, but if you've got spare to give, this is a worthy cause. Here's what happened, in Emmett's own words:

In the early morning hours of August 3, the RJMN office building was broken into. A new computer was stolen and the office was set on fire in 5 places.

A passing motorist saw the flames through the window and sounded the alarm. The firemen arrived and put out the fire. However, there was so much heat and smoke that the four remaining computers, printers, fax and other office equipment melted. The office furniture was rendered useless and the building was damaged beyond repair.

The First Baptist Church across the street is loaning us office space at this time. We are only now getting our communications going well enough to announce our tragedy to our network.

Through other means, some of our people heard about the fire. About 20 of them have sent generous donations for disaster relief. Those gifts have been such a blessing!

Over the years we have not asked you for financial help, however now we need your help!

If each of our many friends will just send a few dollars, together we can continue the ministry which God has raised up. I do not believe that the Evil One will prevail.

Please send your disaster relief donation to:

Restorative Justice Ministries Network
1229 Avenue J
Huntsville, TX 77340

Please mark your gift "disaster relief."

Grace and Peace,
Emmett Solomon, Director
Restorative Justice Ministries Network

ps: We believe that a local street person who was angry about our ministering to ex-offenders is the thief and arsonist.

More on Mexican Crime

Well, my post on Crime in Mexico was either ill-timed or ill-conceived, I'm not sure which. But after I blogged about relative murder rates in Mexico City and Houston (Houston's homicide rate is much higher compared to its population), a rash of beheadings of police in Acapulco by Mexican drug cartels topped the headlines about Mexican crime, launching a new spate of articles to come out in the MSM.

The end of a recent ABC News item, for once, framed the matter from the Mexican perspective:

"[The drug cartels] approach you and they tell you, 'Plata or plomo?,' " [Webb County Sheriff Rick] Flores said. "It means, 'Money or lead? Which one do you want?' "

But in Nuevo Laredo, many Mexicans look across the river and see a never-ending American demand for illegal drugs and a willingness to spend tens of millions of dollars on the cartels that supply them.

"If I was in Laredo, Texas, I'd be embarrassed because the drug corridor is I-35 all the way to Dallas," Nuevo Laredo shop owner Suneson said. "So if this is an easy, a lucrative corridor, this means these drugs are getting across, and the United States is not doing its job. The demand in the United States, this insatiable demand that exists, is driving this frenzy over here, and that's really the problem."

The larger problem may be a combination of American demand, Mexican supply, and a culture of corruption. The unfortunate results along the Rio Grande are one city already paralyzed by fear and another deeply worried that the deadly drug violence is steadily making its way to the American side of the border.

That "may" be the larger problem? Supply and demand? Shocking! Meanwhile, that same Invisible Hand puts US enforcers in a frustrating Catch-22 situation, as Reuters reports that the border crackdown is boosting profits for criminal enterprises of all sorts.
Increased security on the U.S.-Mexican border is turning human smuggling into a multi-billion dollar criminal industry and attracting violent gangs with ties to Mexican drug cartels, authorities say. ...

Police and prosecutors in Arizona, where around half of the almost 1.2 million illegal immigrants caught crossing from Mexico last year were nabbed, say the success has transformed a trade once dominated by "mom and pop" outfits into an industry taking in up to $2.5 billion a year.

"What we are seeing here is the birth of a new organized criminal activity," said Cameron Holmes, the chief of financial remedies at the Arizona Attorney General's office. "We have seen smuggling here for years, but because of increased enforcement at the border it has grown exponentially," he added.
Was that really the goal of a border crackdown? The "birth of a new organized criminal activity?" By all accounts, the US border security strategy deserves nomination in the Stupid Security Awards, possibly in several categories.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

'They need to have more of these': Job fair for ex-cons draws thousands

A job fair for ex-felons in Dallas last week drew thousands of people looking for work, reported an AP story in the Houston Chronicle ("Dallas job fair helps ex-cons get second chance" Aug. 26). Employers left the event with sacks full of job applications from potential workers. Said one participant, "I think they need to have more of these ... The number of people they've got here today is enormous."

Back reading the blogs

I haven't been making my usual rounds at the blogs since returning from vacation, but these recent items grabbed my attention and reminded me why I should:
  • Businesses for Rational Immigration Laws: Dallas Blog reports that the Texas Association of Business has launched a new group, Texas Employers for Immigration Reform, to support a guest worker program and other initiatives that protect their labor pool. See the Dallas Morning News' coverage.
  • 'Double blind' lineups? The Truth About False Confessions points to proposals by the California Commission for the Fair Administration of Justice for "double blind" lineups where officers showing photo arrays of to witnesses don't know which person is the suspect.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Tulia drug war defendants access Texas' innocence compensation law

Here's good news for folks who went through something terrible:

Innocents convicted of crimes in Texas can be compensated by the state up to $25,000 for each year they wrongfully spend behind bars, and the first of the Tulia defendants, Kareem White, has received partial compensation for his wrongful incarceration. According to press reports, others, too, will be compensated. (See "More Tulia sting defendants could get money from Texas," Betsy Blaney, AP, August 28, and "10 from Tulia could be denied cash for jail time," Laylan Copelin, Austin Statesman, Aug. 29.)

I wondered about this possibility after the Governor issued pardons for most of the defendants - apparently the Comptroller's office makes the ruling, which puts gubernatorial candidate Carlolyn Keeton Strayhorn what's-her-names in charge of the decision. She's prolonged her moment in the spotlight by punting the decision on several cases to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.

Here's the question for the AG: Ten Tulia defendants seeking compensation were on probation when they were set up by discredited undercover agent Tom Coleman, so they were serving time on old charges, not new convictions. Wrote Copelin:
Strayhorn framed the issue around the case of Jason Paul Fry, who was serving a probated term for a drug-possession conviction when he was arrested in the Tulia raid.

"Technically, this statutory language appears to disqualify Mr. Fry from entitlement to any compensation," Strayhorn wrote. "However, the inequity is that it was his wrongful arrest and conviction for the Tulia drug charge that caused his probation . . . to be revoked."

The Tulia defendants who were convicted of selling small amounts of cocaine received sentences of up to 90 years, and many served up to four years before they were pardoned.

The state law empowering the Comptroller to compensate exonerees was only established in 2001, intended to repay people cleared by then-new-fangled DNA technology. But innocent people convicted of felonies of any stripe - like those wrongfully convicted in Tulia and immigrants set up in the Dallas fake drug scandal - can be compensated under the law. In fact, Governor Perry's Criminal Justice Advisory Council earlier this year recommended increasing the amount wrongfully convicted defendants could receive.

Few innocence claims have been paid under the statute because the law requires often-reluctant sign off from District Attorneys, who, like doctors, don't like admitting mistakes. But between innocence clinics popping up at Texas law schools, the sorry state of Texas crime labs, and recurring cases of innocent people arrested in drug stings like in Tulia, Hearne, Dallas, and elsewhere, one would expect the number of exonerated people petitioning for reimbursement to grow.

TPPF forum on victims rights and restorative justice

Can't believe I let Doc Berman beat me to posting on an upcoming luncheon organized by recent Grits-guest blogger Marc Levin at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. (It's happening in Austin Tuesday Sept. 12 from 11:30 to 1 - register for the event here.) I even signed up to attend, but for some reason didn't think to blog. As penance for letting him scoop me, I'll quote Doc's post in its entirety, including his afterlinks:
Today I received an e-mail from the Texas Public Policy Foundation discussing an interesting program next month entitled "Giving Victims a Voice." Details about the event can be found here, where this description is given:

In every criminal prosecution today, it is the state versus the accused, but what about the individual victim of the crime? Do Texas crime victims deserve more rights, restitution, and most of all, a greater ability to influence prosecutions and sentencing? Are offender and victim rights really a zero-sum game, or can enhanced victim involvement lead to more restorative sentences and better offender outcomes? Join us for this Policy Primer: Giving Victims a Voice, as we explore these questions and more.

Some related posts about victims and sentencing:

Snitching, Hip Hop, and the War on Terror

Two helpful readers brought these snitching-related items to my attention:

Snitch or leave the country: A Los Angeles Times feature while I was on vacation told the story of a Moroccan man threatened by the FBI with deportation if he refused to become an informant at his mosque ("Pressured to name names," Aug. 7). No evidence was ever brought against the fellow save for allegations by unnamed informants that he'd made statements about the US government which would be protected if he were a citizen. He fought the FBIs demands and went public, ultimately winning his court battle. Others, says the article, have fought and lost. But think how many thousands must have succumbed to similar pressure? According to the Times, terrorism investigations are based on snitches more frequently than other types of traditional police work:
Informants have long been key to criminal investigations. But they are usually used merely to turn up leads. Agents then accumulate other evidence or follow through on their own, undercover.

Terrorism cases, in contrast, are increasingly built solely on informants.

Rand Corp. terrorism expert Brian Jenkins said the reasons are varied. The FBI lacks agents with language and ethnic backgrounds to infiltrate potential jihadist groups. Pressure has mounted to intervene before terrorist acts are carried out. And would-be terrorists now favor "local initiatives beneath the radar of international intelligence," he said, making investigation of homegrown groups much more critical.

The recent arrests of seven Miami men who allegedly talked of blowing up Chicago's Sears Tower, for example, stemmed entirely from the work of an undercover FBI informant who posed as an Al Qaeda operative.

Still, problems with informants in high-profile cases have underscored the perils.

The informant, and star witness, in a botched Detroit terrorism prosecution allegedly told his cellmate that he had lied. The case unraveled after an investigation revealed prosecutors had withheld that and other key information from the defense.
Damned if you do: See Temple Professor Marc Lamont Hill's "Barbershop Notebook" from in February on the "hip hop community" and what he calls the "stop snitching campaign." (I'm not sure it's a "campaign" so much as a "meme" - if it's a campaign, then it's one that's arisen from the bottom up with no identifiable leadership.) Writes Hill:
While it is certainly problematic to condemn all acts of communication with authorities, it is equally shortsighted and irresponsible to advocate an absolute pro-snitching position.

The act of snitching necessarily creates a social and ethical quagmire in which an individual must sacrifice one set of loyalties for another. More specifically, the potential snitch is forced to choose between competing ethical codes and social commitments when making their decision. Often, this process entails deciding between locally defined rules and larger, more official ones. For example, Lil' Kim's refusal to identify her crew members as assailants during a shootout at the Hot 97 radio station was an anti-snitching gesture that privileged her friendship bonds and street ethics over the established laws of the land regarding obstruction of justice. While it is tempting to condemn all such acts on moral or ethical grounds — in this case, arguing that Kim should have protected the interests of the assaulted and not those of the assailants — it is necessary to consider the validity and value of the particular rules and issues at stake on a case-by-case basis.
See other Grits posts on snitching.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Cats and dogs lying down together

In the shameless self-promotion department: The Texas Association of Counties' County magazine (sort of an industry publication aimed at Texas county officials), published a feature this month describing an emerging bipartisan consensus in Texas for reforming the state's criminal justice system. Writer Jim Lewis finds the trend as odd as cats and dogs lying down together, but in a lot of ways it's as natural as the sunrise - what's odd is to think why small government conservatives would support Texas having the world's biggest prison system?

Anyway, I'm quoted, along with the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Marc Levin (much more extensively), as well as Shannon Edmonds who lobbies for the prosecutors' association. It's a nice package of articles covering topics about which regular Grits readers will be familiar, but I'm glad to see
County magazine pick up on the subject. See the pdf version of the current issue, the articles start on page 10 and a Grits posting from 2005 is reprinted on p. 16.

The blog reference especially tickles me because of a familial connection: my grandfather, W.D. Henson, was a founder and the first president of the Texas Association of Counties - he was county judge of Dallam County up in the Texas Panhandle for 29 years.

See related Grits posts:

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Why not test?

It's easy for blood-borne diseases to spread in prison. Sex and sharing needles for tattoos are the main ways diseases are shared among inmates. Condom distribution and in-prison tattoo parlors arguably are the best ways to stop them, but in Texas those ideas have never gained much traction. So as a minimalist first step, State Sen. Rodney Ellis wants Texas prisons to measure the problem; he proposes testing every inmate upon entry for HIV ("Should all new convicts have HIV tests," Austin Statesman, Aug. 24):

For years, prison officials have asked all convicts coming into the state prison system to be tested for HIV. About 80 percent have consented.

Now, a state senator wants to know whether they can make such tests mandatory.

"It's a public safety issue," said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. "We're very concerned about the rapidly increasing infection rates."

Current prison system policy states that all incoming inmates "should be tested at intake," and under a proposed change to take effect next week, that would become "shall be tested" — unless the inmates refuse. At the same time, mandatory testing is done at intake for tuberculosis and syphilis.

Upon release, every inmate is tested for HIV as part of a mandatory DNA blood test.

Were prison officials able to test all incoming convicts, advocates of the testing say, they could know with certainty who was HIV-positive — information that would assist them in properly treating early infections. It could also provide statistical data on how many convicts are becoming infected or testing positive for the infection after they come into the prison system.

Inmates who test HIV-positive are not isolated from other inmates.

For some time, some medical experts have called for such mandatory testing in prisons, citing prisons as perfect incubators for a number of deadly diseases, including HIV and AIDS, and arguing that the nation's 1.4 million prison inmates have an infection rate five times that of the general public.

Diseases in prison return to society when the infected inmates are released, the experts say.

I've often heard the cynical view stated that Texas law required inmates to be tested for AIDS on the way out instead of on the way in because the state didn't want to provide expensive HIV treatments to inmates. But if 80% are tested on the front end, it sounds like the vast majority of inmates receive HIV testing unless they themselves refuse it.

Another medical elephant in the room the state supposedly dreads testing for is Hepatitis C. Treatments are expensive and conventional wisdom has it that the state doesn't want to pay to treat the up to 30% of Texas inmates, according to one estimate, who might have that disease. By comparison less than 2% of Texas inmates have tested positive for HIV.

This isn't an area I know a lot about. What do folks think about mandatory testing of prisoners for HIV or Hep C?

The state has a public health interest in running a safe prison and a constitutional duty to provide healthcare to inmates, but it's also a big cost driver. One question is, should tests be mandatory even if the inmate doesn't want them? Another: Is it ethical NOT to test when the incidence is so high and treatment options might be available?

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Good Idea: Family Days for incarcerated parents

When kids grow up with parents in prison, they're much more likely to go to prison themselves as adults- according to some estimates 6-8 times more likely. Indeed, I've come to believe keeping kids and parents apart often punishes the kids, in many cases, in much more profound ways than it does the adult who committed the crime.

Via Skelly at Arbitrary and Capricious, here's an idea from Washington State that Texas' prison system should imitate: Family Days for incarcerated parents, in Washinton State particularly targeting fathers. Reports the Olympian ("Events keep jail from separating dads and kids," Aug. 20):
During typical inmate visits, friends and family members must sit at tables in a room that can get loud and crowded. At the back-to-school event - and others like it throughout the year - inmates and their children are allowed to roam freely outside and in the center's gymnasium. There are games and music and at lunch, there's a barbecue.

For a moment, it feels like life outside of prison.

Sentencing resources

Via Doc Berman, the new Corrections Sentencing blog has a series (with more to come) on the benefits, pitfalls and practicalities of starting a sentencing commission, see:
In addition, Berman points to an upcoming (November 30 to December 1) academic conference at the New School for Social Research from in NYC on punishment and sentencing that looks interesting. See the schedule and list of participants for more details. The event is inexpensive ($50 for the conference, $35 for ACLU members, $15 for students) if you can make it to New York.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Half billion proposed for new Texas prison building in agency budget request

Who didn't see this coming?

Oh yeah, the Governor.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice wants $520 million more in its next budget for new prison building and small expansions of drug treatment facilities, reports the Austin Statesman ("3 new prisons, more treatment programs are sought," August 19).

Half a billion here, half a billion there - pretty soon it starts to add up to real money. This was SO avoidable.

Texas doesn't have a problem with prison overcrowding. What we have is an overincarceration crisis. We're incarcerating too many people for minor infractions for too long a time, and too many things are illegal, even frequently felonious. Nearly 2,000 separate, specific acts have been declared felonies in Texas. When God sat down to write a list of forbidden actions, He only came up with ten.

In addition, Texas has the longest probation terms in the nation, and a huge proportion of those entering prison each year come in on revocations for technical violations. The Texas Legislature tried to partially address the problem in 2005. House Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden and Senate Criminal Justice Chairman John Whitmire proposed strengthening probation by giving offenders ways to earn their way off supervision early through good behavior, with the approval of a judge.

In a move that defied fiscal sanity, and in this writer's opinion worsened public safety, Governor Rick Perry vetoed the bill at the behest of a handful of prosecutors. From that moment this outcome was inevitable. Conventional wisdom had it that Perry wanted to appear "tough on crime" before the 2006 gubernatorial elections, but the real result was to be "tough" on taxpayers' pocketbooks. The reforms were good for both taxpayers and public safety, backed by fiscally conservative Republicans and Democrats alike, and passed by wide margins in both legislative chambers.

Thankfully, legislators right now appear inclined to find alternatives to incarceration instead of more prison building, reported the Statesman:
In recent weeks, as details of the new expansion plans leaked out, Senate and House leaders questioned whether building prisons is the answer.

Instead, they backed more treatment and community-based corrections programs that are much cheaper to operate. Citing a continuing shortage of guards, they also questioned whether enough workers can be found to properly staff new prisons.

That last bit about finding workers to properly staff prisons looms larger than most people realize, and the 3% pay hike proposed by TDCJ chief Brad Livingston won't make a difference given the agency's other rotten labor policies - what difference would a 3% pay hike make to you if you made $23,500 per year before taxes and your employer could demand double shifts without extra overtime pay? One in four Texas prison guards quit each year, and the quality of recruits has declined. A 3% raise won't cover guards' increased cost of gasoline to get to work.

The basic labor problem at Texas prisons can't be easily fixed. Most prisons have been built in rural areas, supposedly as mechanisms to spur economic growth through state employment. But the jobs are crappy, not good enough to keep young people, certainly, from moving to Texas cities, and prisons have become harder and harder to staff as rural counties depopulate. You can't legislate a fix to that problem, not without spending a LOT more money.

This short-term crisis could have been largely avoided with the passage of HB 2193, and similar probation strengthening now becomes virtually mandatory for the 80th Texas Legislature. Indeed, the flood of new, mostly-non-violent prisoners has grown so great that fiscal hawks at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation now propose even more dramatic steps. Most observers agree what must be done. The real question is, why have we waited so long?

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Crime in Mexico

"Mexico City?!," more than one friend exclaimed when I told them where we were headed on vacation. "Aren't you afraid of all the crime?" My definitive answer, "Uh, actually, no."

I've gotta tell you, I feel a lot safer traveling in Mexico than in any large American city. And statistics back up that feeling. From various estimates I've seen, Mexico City, which has a much-touted reputation for crime, averages between 2.1 and 2.5 murders per day. Let's assume the higher end of the range is correct, and that would mean about 900 murders per year occur in Mexico City. By comparison, Houston had 326 murders in 2005, down from more than 600 per year in the early 90s.

But then consider that according to the 2000 census Houston has around 2 million residents, compared to about 20 million people in Mexico City. If Mexico City's murder rate were as high as Houston's, they'd see an astonishing 3,200+ murders per year.

So where should Americans fear for their lives most when traveling? In Mexico, where there's no death penalty deterrent and a bad reputation for crime, or in Houston which sends more people to death row than any other city and whose mayor touts public safety as his top priority?

To make a truly fair comparison, it should be said that Mexico's national murder rate is about 14.8 murders per 100,000 residents, according to a recent article in the UNAM journal Voices of Mexico, ("Insecurity in Mexico,"Luis Gonzalez Placencia, October-December 2004, not available online) but most of those take place in a handful of border towns like Juarez, where hundreds of women have been murdered, and Nuevo Laredo where drug cartels are openly feuding in the streets. Traveling in the Mexican interior, you're much safer than you'd be traveling nearly anywhere in the United States.

While we were in Xalapa, the state capital of Veracruz, I asked long-time resident Roy Dudley, who I dubbed in this vacation post the "unofficial mayor of gringo Xalapa," about crime in that city. He insisted there was virtually none, but given my interest in crime and punishment I pressed him a bit on the subject, to which he grinned and offered this reply (paraphrased from memory):
There's really not much, but I did hear a while back about one incident. A woman working as a street vendor came running down the block yelling 'Policia! policia!' and quickly several officers came to her aid.

'What happened?,' they asked her. 'I was robbed,' the woman exclaimed. 'A man stole all the money I made today and now I have nothing,' she sobbed.

'Where did you have your money?' asked the officers. 'Aqui' (here), she said, pointing down her blouse indicating she kept it inside her bra.

Puzzled, an officer asked, 'How in God's name did he steal your money from there?'

The woman replied, 'Well, I didn't know he had bad intentions.'
Like any other place in the world, when you're traveling you shouldn't carry lots of cash in Mexico, and always pay attention to your surroundings. In addition, cabs in Mexico City have a reputation for thievery and sometimes tourists have been targeted by cabbies for robbery or kidnapping, though hyped anecdotal accounts, I think, overstate the problem. But if you're worried about crime when you're traveling, you should fear visiting Texas more than visiting Mexico.

RELATED: CrimProf Blog points to reports that homicide rates are spiking in the U.S. nationwide.

CORRECTION: The initial version of this post incorrectly transcribed the statistics from the magazine Voices of Mexico. That version erroneously said Mexico experiences 14.8 murders per day per 100,000 residents. The actual number, now corrected in the main text, is 14.8 murders annually per 100,000. Grits regrets the error. (That's what I get for using stats I can't link to.)

To live outside the law, you must be honest

Long-time readers know how much I deplore the criminal justice system's failure to provide ex-felons an opportunity to redeem themselves and reintegrate into society once they're out, in particular excluding them from finding gainful employment. In the comments to this blog post from last summer, a young woman wrote this while I was gone:
My fiance is a convicted felon. He commited his crime when he was 20 years old. Nothing major. But major enough for this country. Before him I have dated and lived with several "nice" model citizens who have either cheated on me, attempted to assault me and one destroyed me financialy. My fiance is a better man than any of them. Honest, loyal, loving, compassionate and everyone loves him. But because of his mistake we are going to leave United States soon and start over in another country. He cannot find any jobs. Even a gas station fired him. He is depressed and does not want me to be the only bread winner because he wants to be able to take care of his family. He has not commited any other crimes. Never will. But we are both struggling financialy, we cannot afford a child etc. That's a shame.
Responding to the same post during my absence, another writer lamented a daughter's inability to find a job after a drug conviction:
I have a daughter [who] served time for drugs, now that she is out, every place she has applied refused her because of her prison record. How can she redeem herself, if society won't help? I pray for a break through for this serious problem.
These sad statements remind me of Bob Dylan's observation, "To live outside the law, you must be honest." Not everybody with a prison record is a dishonest person, and as the first writer has learned firsthand, for sure not everybody with a "clean" record can be trusted.

Back from Mexico

After a much needed four-week vacation, Kathy and I made it back last night from Mexico City. Regular posting will resume shortly

Thanks so much to the guest bloggers who kept the content coming in my absence, especially Alan Bean whose prolific writing provided the backbone of Grits' posts while I was gone. Thanks, too, to Judge Susan Criss, Marc Levin and Isela Gutierrez for their welcome contributions. I greatly appreciate their willingness to pinch hit while I was away.

I've put up couple of additional items about our vacation on my personal blog, including an item on the current political crisis, and I'll have maybe one or two more to come about our trip - we had a wonderful time, and if it weren't for getting to sleep in my own comfortable bed and see my three dogs, I have to say I wish I were still there, and not just because of the fabulous weather. I really love Mexico, and every time I go I see and learn more things to like about it.

Anyway, more blogging here soon (as I look at my packed email box I see a lot of backlog to cover) and thanks to all for reading.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Waiting for an Explanation

This concludes a series of posts inspired by a federal drug conspiracy case targeting a middle aged housewife and three of her children.

Gasps and murmurs rose from the thirty family members sitting in the gallery when Judge Tucker Melancon granted new trials to Ann and Edward Colomb and Danny and Sammy Davis. A U.S. marshal wheeled to face the exuberant throng. “Be quiet!” she barked.

Judge Melancon’s ruling took everyone by surprise. Assistant U.S. attorney Brett Grayson had hoped for twenty-year sentences for Sammy and Edward (enhanced by their felony conviction in 1993), ten years for Ann and Danny and the confiscation the Colomb family residence. It was not to be—at least not yet.

Defense counsel had entered the day-long hearing hoping that Judge Melancon would call for an evidentiary hearing in which the strength of their arguments would be tested. No one expected the judge to grant all four motions for a new trial without an additional hearing.

Over a month later, Judge Melancon still hasn’t released a written ruling explaining his decision, and several more months may pass before he explains himself. Was the judge simply concerned about the quality of snitch testimony in this particular case; or did the allegations proffered by Quinn Alex and John Doe suggest that the unrestricted use of uncorroborated inmate testimony had become what one defense attorney called a cancer on the criminal justice system?

It is possible that the judge’s ruling was primarily inspired by a drug addicted confidential informant named Stevie Charlot. During the March trial, Judge Melancon remarked that he certainly had an opinion of Stevie Charlot’s credibility but refrained from elaboration. At the July hearing Brett Grayson challenged the judge to explain his cryptic remark. Melancon replied that Charlot was probably the least credible witnesses he had ever run across. He even called the informant’s testimony “an abomination.”

The feds would be smart to drop all charges on all defendants and walk away from this case so public defenders will have no reason to probe the implications of this case any further. In a proverbial fox-guarding-the-henhouse maneuver, the Drug Enforcement Administration rushed in to handle the “investigation” into the two inmates alleging a conspiracy of snitches and the six inmates (headlined by Dexter Harmon) they have implicated so far. One defense attorney has charged that the DEA is purposely skirting the obvious questions because they don’t want inconvenient answers memorialized in the record.

To date, Ann Colomb and her sons have stuck to their guns: there will be no plea offers accepted in this case—nothing short of full exoneration will suffice.

After the Tulia fiasco the Texas legislature passed legislation requiring the corroboration of confidential informants like Stevie Charlot. The reform community tried to extend this requirement to police officers but our efforts were swamped by a tidal wave of lobbying from the law enforcement establishment. But even a limited corroboration bill led swiftly to the Dallas Sheetrock scandal and a series of less dramatic victories for simple decency.

Jailhouse snitches live several notches down from confidential informants on the credibility scale, especially in the federal system where the inducement to lie is so powerful it can hardly be exaggerated. Most confidential informants are petty street hustlers trying to avoid incarceration; federal inmates are far more likely to fabricate testimony because snitching is their only ticket to a time cut. Certainly, if Stevie Charlot lacks credibility, Dexter Harmon’s uncorroborated allegations should never reach a jury.

Moments after Judge Melancon’s dramatic announcement, Brett Grayson waived a stack of papers in the air like a latter day Joe McCarthy. The DEA had interviewed Dexter and the boys, the federal prosecutor told the judge, and every one of those boys had sworn they were telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

In the absence of a smoking gun we are left with a simple question: should men like Brett Grayson, whether operating at the state or federal level, be allowed to prosecute drug cases without a shred of corroborated testimony?

When the law is manipulated to put innocent people in prison, the law must be reformed. Will this simple maxim shape Judge Melancon’s written ruling? That is my prayer.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Children of Belial

This is the twelfth in a series of posts inspired by a federal drug conspiracy case targeting a middle aged housewife and three of her children.

Jezebel is the quintessential witchy-woman. Though her sins were many, her fate was sealed by an innocuous affair in Jezreel, the site of the royal palace. Jezebel may have been the power behind the throne but her husband Ahab was the titular king. And Ahab was moaning and bitching about his neighbor Naboth, the man who wouldn’t sell him his vineyard. Ahab wanted that vineyard. He wanted it bad. It was all he could think about. After a long night watching her idiot husband pacing the floor Jezebel decided to restore tranquility to her household.

The following day the elders and nobles of Jezreel received a letter bearing Ahab’s seal and signature. They were ordered to find two “children of Belial” willing to accuse Naboth the Jezreelite of blaspheming against God and the king. (“Children of Belial” is one of those odd expressions one finds in the King James Version. In more recent translations it is rendered as “scoundrels” or “worthless fellows”.) The children of Belial were needed because the law of Israel declared that no one could be condemned except on the testimony of two credible witnesses. So the search was on for two compromised individuals who would rat out their grandmothers for thirty pieces of silver.

Jezebel’s plot unfolded without a hitch and Naboth was dragged outside the city gates and stoned to death. Jezebel informed her clueless husband that he could take possession of his blessed vineyard.

Enter Elijah, the prophet of Jehovah. He appeared as Ahab was gleefully checking out his new digs. Dispensing with pleasantries, Elijah proclaimed the word of the Lord: because Ahab had profited from dirty-deeds-done-dirt-cheap all his male heirs (literally those “that pisseth against a wall”) would meet a violent end.

Ahab could have stolen a page from his ancestor Adam by blaming the evil business on his wife; but the Bible says the king humbled himself and took the blame like a man. True, he hadn’t known the details of Jezebel’s plan, nor had he directly accused Naboth or tossed a pebble in his direction. But Ahab knew what lay at the root of the evil: his insatiable appetite for acquisition.

I have talked a lot in this series of posts about Dexter Harmon and the other “children of Belial” the government used to convict the Colomb-Davis family. But Dexter isn’t the chief villain here. Jerry Stutes and Brett Grayson made Dexter an offer he couldn’t refuse. The context of their conversation made the following conversation redundant: “Look Dexter, we’re going to ask you a question, and before you answer you should know that a positive answer wins you a get-out-of-jail-free card and a negative answer leaves you languishing in hell?”

Brett Grayson looks and talks like a cross between Don Rickles and Dick Cheney. Like his former boss, John Ashcroft, Grayson is a fervent Pentecostal. Unfortunately, in the Colomb-Davis story the assistant U.S. attorney plays the role of Jezebel. Jezebel didn’t bear any personal animus toward Naboth nor was she irrationally prejudiced against Jezreelites. But Jezebel was losing sleep because of Ahab and his damned vineyard and killing Naboth was the best way to restore peace to her household.

Brother Brett Grayson has nothing personal against Ann Colomb and her family. But he is occupationally married to the United States government, a partner with an insatiable appetite for incarceration. Mr. Grayson incarcerates drug dealers because it’s easy. Every conviction creates another child of Belial; the more draconian the sentence the more pliable the children become.

But Elijah wasn’t sent to Jezebel and my complaint isn’t with a solitary assistant U.S. attorney. The problem in Israel was that Jezebel had the power to make offers nobody could refuse.

I am firmly convinced that the vast majority of assistant U.S. attorneys wouldn’t have touched the Colomb-Davis case even if they thought it was a slam dunk. Prosecutions based entirely on the uncorroborated testimony of children of Belial are inherently dangerous.

But the core problem isn’t Brother Brett per se; the problem is the unfettered power to coerce that Brother Brett has been given.

This boils down to Danny and Dexter. Danny Davis isn’t any more innocent than his mother and his brothers; but his innocence is singularly obvious. Danny has never been convicted of a felony; he moved away from Church Point four years before his parent’s home was raided; for years he slaved as a garbage-man while carrying a full academic load at a business college; and he wasn’t added to the federal indictment until Dexter Harmon dropped his name in February of 2002.

In the Colomb-Davis case, Dexter Harmon is the fountainhead of uncorroborated snitch testimony: the only inmate witness who actually knew Edward and Danny when they were old enough to drive. By their own admission, the original cadre of inmate witnesses was part of Dexter’s crack ring in Rayne, Louisiana and their testimony was shaped by Dexter’s coaching.

Once again it’s Naboth the Jezreelite against a child of Belial and the only question is who we are going to believe? Twenty-eight hundred years after Naboth was stoned twelve jurors in Lafayette, Louisiana were persuaded by a child of Belial.

But I repeat: the problem is the coercive power a frightened nation has handed its prosecutors.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

They're Doing it Again!

This is the eleventh in a series of posts inspired by a federal drug conspiracy case targeting a middle aged housewife and three of her children.

When instant replay made its debut back in the 60s my mother had a hard time adapting. “Oh no,” she would wail, “They’re doing it again!”

That’s the way I felt when Ann Colomb told me her story in a McDonalds on Canal Street in New Orleans in the autumn of 2004. The perjury trial of Tom “trust me” Coleman was just a few months away and my mother’s lament flashed through my mind: “Oh no, they’re doing it again!”

At first glance the Tulia fiasco and the Colomb story are quite dissimilar. In Tulia there was one sketchy undercover cop and dozens of defendants; in Louisiana there were four defendants and dozens of people (cops and robbers) pointing the accusing finger. But in both cases innocent people went to prison on the basis of uncorroborated testimony plus nothing.

When I made my concerns about Coleman public in March of 2000 I wasn’t convinced that the undercover man had fabricated every case on every defendant. But Coleman reminded me of the sleazy LAPD cops busted in the Ramparts scandal—I didn’t trust him. Tom would get on the witness stand, tell a story about a narcotics transaction and the defendant du jour would go to prison . . . over and over again. Tom had no real evidence but he said he hated dope and dope dealers—and that was enough for eight juries.

In the Colomb case, it has been more of the same. Dexter Harmon tells the jury that Danny Davis was moving millions of dollars of crack cocaine back in the day and Danny goes to prison. Neither Tom Coleman nor Dexter Harmon could produce a shred of evidence to back up their claims and both men had motive and opportunity to lie.

This kind of prosecution scares the hell out of me. Innocent people went to prison in Tulia, and I am utterly convinced that Ann Colomb and her sons are entirely innocent of the charges leveled against them between 1993 and 2006.

The new element in the Colomb case is the promiscuous use of uncorroborated snitch testimony. If Tom Coleman, a certified police officer, lacked credibility what are we to make of men like Dexter Harmon? By the time the Colomb-Davis case went to trial in March of 2006, assistant U.S. attorney Brett Grayson had assembled thirty-two (count ‘em) jailhouse witnesses eager to tie Ann and the boys to hundreds of kilos of crack cocaine. The trial was delayed when Judge Tucker Melancon ruled that sixteen snitches should be quite sufficient for Mr. Grayson’s purposes. Grayson appealed this ruling to the 5th Circuit which decided that Melancon should at least give Grayson’s snitches a hearing to assess their credibility.

How does a judge or a jury assess the credibility of a snitch who can’t corroborate his story? Everyone knew these guys were testifying in exchange for time cuts, but that didn’t necessarily mean they were lying. Eventually, Melancon made room for thirty-one snitches witnesses.

Dexter was the most intelligent, articulate and persuasive inmate the prosecutor had at his disposal so he went first. He had actually lived in Church Point and could identify Ann’s boys without difficulty—they had been regulars at his club after all. It was a bit of a stretch to believe that high school freshmen and sophomores were drug kingpins, a problem that probably occurred to Harmon himself. When he talked to Grayson and Stutes back in 2002, Harmon was talking about enormous transactions involving dozens of kilos; under oath he would only say he had sold a little over a kilo to Edward and a little less than a kilo to Danny.

But the glaring contradictions in Dexter’s testimony were offset by his new status as a born again child of King Jesus. “When I terrorized the streets I worked for the devil,” he told the jury. But “I’ve come to know Christ and brought many people to the gospel.” Brett Grayson’s star witness had even organized an impromptu Bible study right in the joint.

Harmon was followed by three of the men who had worked in Dexter’s Rayne operation: Cleveland “Gotti” Benoit, John Roberts and Marcus Ledet. Of the three, only Ledet had ever met Danny and Edward—and that was when the boys were all in junior high school. Ledet’s brother Marvin had signed an affidavit stating that Marcus had invented his testimony out of thin air in exchange for a time cut. “My brother should repent to God for lyin’ like that on Miss Ann and her family,” Marvin once told me.

Cleveland Benoit told the jury that Dexter Harmon had written him to say that the government was investigating the Colomb family. “Gotti” Benoit then passed the word to his buddy Marcus Ledet as the two men washed dishes in the kitchen of the Beaumont Low federal prison.

In the end, Brett Grayson only called twelve of his snitch witnesses. Midway through the trial a letter arrived at the U.S. attorneys’ office in Lafayette from an inmate in the Three Rivers, Texas federal prison with the unlikely name of Quinn Alex (not surprisingly everyone calls him “Alex Quinn”). The Texas inmate said he had paid $2200 to one of Grayson’s lead snitches in exchange for information that supposed to have allowed him to testify against a federal drug defendant in exchange for a time cut. When Mr. Alex got nothing for his money he wrote his lawyer to complain. Unlike Dexter and the boys, Alex had Western Union records to back up his contention.

Shortly after lawyering up and taking the fifth, Alex testified that he had heard Edward Colomb’s name being talked up in more than one Texas prison—more than that he wouldn’t say. But moments after Ann Colomb and her son’s were convicted, the boys were approached by Quinn Alex and a second inmate both of whom said they had seen Dexter Harmon, Marcus Ledet, Cleveland Benoit and three other snitches getting their testimony straight.

The jury was probably relieved when Mr. Grayson called his snitch parade to a halt in mid procession, but they had no idea why.

Throughout most of the trial I was confident that Ann, Danny, Edward and Sammy’s nightmare would soon be over. But the night before the verdict was handed down I awoke in the middle of the night convinced that convictions were inevitable. The sense of helpless horror I had experienced in the Tulia courtroom years earlier had me in its icy grip. “They’re doing it again,” I thought, “and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.”

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Notes from the road in Mexico

While Grits' able guest bloggers keep the home fires burning (thanks especially to Alan Bean for his prolific posting), I've written several additional items about our vacation in Mexico on my personal blog, Huevos Rancheros, see here, here, here, and here. Check them out, if you care to, and I'll be back home in a week or so to resume posting on Grits.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Feds look into Texas Youth Commission problems

Increases in abuse, disgruntled staff, and a Department of Justice investigation all suggest that the Texas Youth Commission is facing some serious problems. Despite claims to the contrary from the agency director, having DOJ open a formal investigation into conditions of confinement in a TYC facility suggests that something is very wrong.

According to a 2004 U.S. News & World Report article full of horrifying stories about young people being brutally neglected and abused in state juvenile detention facilities, Texas isn’t alone in its problems. In fact:
Juvenile justice facilities across the nation are in a dangerously advanced state of disarray, with violence an almost everyday occurrence and rehabilitation the exception rather than the rule. Abuse of juvenile inmates by staff is routine. … "Almost every place is experiencing major problems," says criminologist Barry Krisberg, author of a recent scathing report on the California Youth Authority. "There are cycles of abuse, reform, and abuse, and we are in a cycle of abuse."
In an unusually happy turn of events, the federal government has stepped up to the plate to intervene on behalf of incarcerated young people. Says U.S. News & World Report:
Juvenile lockups typically are the provinces of states, which either run them or pay millions to private contractors to do the job. But the U.S. Department of Justice has recently begun attacking abuses in juvenile facilities in an aggressive way. The feds have active investigations or are monitoring settled cases in juvenile justice systems in 13 states or separate territories. ... And more cases are on the horizon. "We have a full-court press on this," says R. Alexander Acosta, assistant attorney general for civil rights. Under a 1980 law, his attorneys have the power to investigate and sue to correct a pattern or practice of unlawful conditions at juvenile facilities. The 1994 federal crime act also allows the department to sue when administrators of juvenile justice systems violate kids' rights. The flurry of suits began during the Clinton administration, but John Ashcroft's Justice Department has more than kept up the pace, doubling the number of new investigations. "No one deserves to be treated this way," says Brad Schlozman, deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights.
Clearly, the ongoing DOJ investigation into TYC is part and parcel of the overall federal campaign to improve conditions of confinement in state juvenile corrections facilities. And, as far as I’m concerned, it’s about time that the feds come to Texas. Allegations about problems at TYC that have recently surfaced in the local media include:
  • Vicious and violent attacks on inmates by guards. Attacks at the Evins Regional Justice Center in South Texas reportedly led to baseball-sized swelling when a boy's head was used as a battering ram, and temporary blindness when a guard scraped another boy’s face raw against the concrete. Yet another youth alleges that guards cuffed him and left him outside in the sun for several hours on top of an ant nest, where he was bitten hundreds of times.
  • A corrupt complaint and investigation system. Former and current TYC staff claim that they have been asked to change records, lie to inspectors and parents about youth who are injured, and have seen abuse reports and videotapes that document abuse mysteriously disappear
  • Lack of responsiveness to family members’ concerns. Parents have testified before the House Committee on Juvenile Justice and Family Issues about their children being beaten by staff members, their grievances being ignored, and their children's sentences being unduly extended, even when the youth were serving time for less-than-serious crimes.
My hunch is that where there's this much smoke, there's got to be fire. Like many, I’ll be watching the DOJ's investigation into TYC unfold with great interest.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Social World of a Drug Kingpin

This is the tenth in a series of posts inspired by a federal drug conspiracy case targeting a middle aged housewife and three of her children.

Once the Colomb name entered the federal prison grapevine everybody wanted a piece of the action. It began with young black men living within a one hundred mile radius of Church Point. Next, convicted dealers from Houston started contacting Assistant U.S. Attorney Brett Grayson. According to their stories, Edward and Danny would buy drugs in the parking lots outside of a Houston strip joint, a 7-11 or a Whataburger.

Danny’s white Mustang 5.0 figured prominently in these stories long after the car had gone back to the finance company. Testifying to the grand jury in 2002, one inmate reported that Danny was at the wheel of a white 5.0. Asked if that was a Mustang the witness mumbled, “I guess.”

Eventually, inmates as far away as Midland, Texas (over 700 miles from Church Point) were informing on the Colombs.

The lives of Edward Henry and Danny Davis changed dramatically once they left High School in 1994. The adulatory write-ups in the local paper were gone and their social world had been systematically dismantled. The Carrier Club 88 was closed by 1995 and the Boulevard, Church Point’s youth drag, was also history. Whenever the boys got behind the wheel chances were good they would be pulled over by the Church Point police. Consequently, their social universe was almost entirely confined to their parent’s home.

Danny Davis and his brothers Edward and Randy were all dating white girls by the mid-90s. The boys were still popular with the girls and, with other social options eliminated, the Colomb residence became a substitute hangout. It was the only place white and black kids could interact without attracting negative attention.

Even so, the white girls who spent a lot of time at Ann’s place could expect to be pulled over for trivial traffic infractions after every visit to the Colomb residence. Tickets were rarely written, but questions abounded: “What were you doing at the Colombs? Don’t you know they deal drugs?”

Sometimes the remarks got personal. “What’s a good looking girl like you doing around a bunch of niggers? You’re too good for that.” (I have interviewed half a dozen white girls who frequented the Colomb home during the mid-to-late 90s and they all report this kind of harassment.)

Ann Colomb told her boys to keep a written record of every encounter with the police. A steady stream of young black males was now coming to Ann with horror stories of their own. Ann would accompany them to the courthouse and charges were repeatedly dropped when defendants refused to accept plea offers.

Edward Henry changed his surname to Colomb and married Tacha, his childhood sweetheart. He worked concrete under the remorseless Louisiana sun and endured the constant traffic stops with a sense of stoic fatalism. Tacha never saw him cry, but his mood was somber and he seem convinced that he was destined for prison no matter how hard he worked to avoid it. In the two weeks leading up to his wedding Edward was assessed $1600 in traffic tickets. He spent the ten days leading up to the blessed day in the local lockup because he didn’t have the money to pay the fines.

But Edward refused to leave Church Point. He worried about his parents and wanted to be there for them.

More sensitive by nature than his older brother, Danny Davis was on a slow slide into chronic depression. He told his therapist that if the police would leave him alone he could pull himself together. One day when a local cop gave him the finger, Danny snapped. “You’re just doing what you do because you know I can’t do nothing about it,” Danny roared. “Step out from behind that badge and I’ll whip your ass!”

This kind of response, though understandable, simply deepened his adversarial relationship with the local authorities.

Then Danny met Elizabeth Carrier, the daughter of a white Catholic family from nearby Carencro. Elizabeth grew tired of being stopped by the police every time she drove to Church Point and eventually talked Danny into moving to Opelousas, a larger town fifteen miles to the north. At the time Danny was driving an $800 1983 Buick Riviera with $1900 rims. He sold the rims to finance the move and started working construction.

When the transmission on the Riviera went out Danny was too poor to repair it so for two years he asked for a push to get rolling and parked with the wheels against the curb.

While in Opelousas, Danny enrolled in a technical college, working toward a degree in business machine repair. Danny hadn’t been much of a student in high school and it hadn’t helped when his teachers winked and gave him passing grades he hadn’t earned. But things were different now. Danny was up at six in the morning; he worked construction till five in the afternoon, then showered and drove to his evening classes. When they moved to Lafayette a year later he worked the graveyard shift as a garbage man and kept attending classes.

Graduation brought a decent job with a grown-up salary, a mortgage, and a new sense of self-respect. Elizabeth’s parents had grown up in Church Point and they were horrified by the idea of their daughter dating a black man. Rumors that Danny came from a drug dealing family didn’t help. Rodney Carrier knew he couldn’t stop his daughter from marrying Danny, so he screwed up his courage and paid him a visit. Danny told him he didn’t sell drugs and didn’t use drugs. Moreover, he loved Elizabeth and wanted to support and protect her. The two men embraced and Rodney drove home.

As Rodney and Lois Carrier became acquainted with the flesh-and-blood Danny Davis their concerns melted away along with the racial prejudice they had imbibed with their mothers’ milk. Danny started attending a Bible study at the Catholic Church in Carencro and on Wednesday evenings he and Rodney would knock back a few Bud Lites and talk about God.

Everything changed on October 22nd, 2001. At first only Ann and Edward were part of the alleged drug conspiracy. But one spring day, while rolling up to his parents place in Church Point, Danny Davis so a police car pull in behind him. The nightmare was back.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

That Voodoo that You Do So Well

This is the ninth in a series of posts inspired by a federal drug conspiracy case targeting a middle aged housewife and three of her children.

Dexter Harmon had been in the federal prison system for two years when Jerry Stutes and Brett Grayson paid a call. Several of his former associates had snitched on Dexter and Dexter had snitched on the people up the ladder from him—particularly the kingpin of kingpins, John Timothy Cotton of Houston. This testimony was part of the massive Operation Rap Crack which nailed fifty-two defendants prior to Tim Cotton’s three-week trial in 2004 that resulted in a life sentence.

Dexter Harmon could honestly claim that he knew Danny and Edward. The two young men had been celebrated high school athletes when the Carrier Club was at its prime. Danny Davis’s picture was in the paper on a weekly basis in 1994 and anyone who followed high school athletics knew him by sight.

Harmon told Grayson and Stutes that Danny Davis was a bigger drug dealer than his brother Edward. This came as a shocking revelation. Jerry Stutes hadn’t even brought a picture of Danny Davis with him to Yazoo City; but he promised to rectify that oversight.

The Tim Cotton operation reputedly shipped crack cocaine from Houston to towns in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Louisiana. Operating out of Rayne, a town just south of Church Point, Dexter Harmon was Tim Cotton’s central supplier in western Louisiana. At Cotton’s trial, Harmon testified that he had traveled extensively throughout the United States and had made several money laundering runs to the Dominican Republic, once with hundreds of thousands of dollars stuffed inside a Nissan Maxima.

Big time dealers like Dexter Harmon get most of their money in small bills from street level dealers making dozens of nickel-and-dime deals a day. Crack rocks sell for between five and twenty dollars, money which can’t be banked in volume without raising suspicions. Dexter took a plea when he realized the government had phone records showing he had been in constant contact with his associates in Houston and receipts showing he had repeatedly wired vast sums via Western Union.

After Tim Cotton’s trial the government tried to entice media interest by publicizing the fact that Dexter Harmon, working on Tim Cotton’s orders, had paid a Voodoo priestess in the Dominican Republic half a million dollars to place a hex on the United States government.

A small coterie of mid-level dealers from the Rayne area procured their drugs from Harmon; most of these guys had been regulars at the Carrier Club 88 in the early 90s. As soon as the feds took their leave, Dexter Harmon fired off a letter to one of his former associates, Cleveland “Gotti” Benoit, a drug dealer who had once performed in Dexter Harmon’s rap group. The “Gotti” label was probably stolen from Irv Gotti, the head of Rap label Murder Inc. before he was busted by the feds on tax evasion and narcotics charges.

The link between Hip Hop icons and the drug culture was as obvious and intentional. Many rappers portrayed themselves as desperate crack slingers on the run from the cops. Sometimes art mimicked reality; more often the gangsta posturing was just a cheap marketing ploy. But the result was that any black male associated with rap music was suspect—even if he had just cranked up a TuPac tune on his system. Even the title “Operation Rap Crack” suggests an intimate association between black music and drug crime. Stevie Charlot had once toured Europe and the United States as a drummer with Beau Jocque and the Zydeco Hi-Rollers before the band leader died of a heart attack and Stevie succumbed to a crack addiction.

The day before Stevie Charlot allegedly bought crack from Ann and Edward Colomb, Cleveland “Gotti” Benoit wrote his defense attorney begging for an opportunity to rat on somebody. His plea bargain was dependant on his willingness to roll over on Dexter Harmon and his kingpin buddies, but when these guys copped pleas Benoit was out of luck. “If nothing happens to me and I have to do the rest of my sentence,” he lamented to his attorney, “I’ll be the only one [from the Rayne area] who didn’t benefit from helping the government.”

The government’s snitch system is predicated on the draconian mandatory minimum sentences Congress has attached to federal drug sentences and the fact that parole has been abolished from the federal system. When you give a man like Cleveland Benoit twenty years without parole he gets desperate. He's supposed to. Short days after receiving Harmon’s letter, Benoit fired off a missive to Brett Grayson. “Threw a few of my sources (sic)” Gotti had learned that Grayson was investigating “the Cologne brothers.”

On May 13, 2002, Benoit received a visit from Jerry Stutes. Dexter Harmon’s ex-flunky had little trouble picking Edward and Danny out of a photo array; they were the only ones featured in head-and-shoulder shots. Benoit told the investigator that he had served as Harmon’s back-up man whenever he ran short of drugs. Since Benoit got his drugs from Harmon this was an odd arrangement. Dexter ran out of drugs a lot—Benoit reported weekly transactions of approximately $7,000.

Marcus Ledet learned about the Colomb investigation while washing dishes with Cleveland Benoit at the Beaumont Low federal prison. On April 26, 2002, an enthusiastic Ledet contacted Brett Grayson. “I was told you were investigating the Culone brothers from Church Point, Louisiana,” the letter began, “on charges following their past and future.”

The repeated misspelling of the Colomb name probably originated with Dexter Harmon. Edward Colomb went by the surname “Henry” in the mid-1990s which means the “Colomb” name had to be supplied by Grayson and Stutes.

By the time a grand jury convened in May of 2002, Stutes and Grayson had interviewed most of Dexter Harmon’s former associates from the Rayne area. Before long, Danny and Edward Culone-Cologne had been tied to 250 kilos of crack cocaine with a street value of $65 million.

But the government had a problem: there were no phone logs, no money wires, and no clear social connection between grown men like Dexter Harmon and high school kids like Danny and Edward who hadn’t started shaving when they were supposedly selling millions of dollars of crack every week.

Brett Grayson might have asked himself how Ann Colomb’s boys could have done over three million crack deals by themselves—that’s a thousand deals every day. Although the indictment referred to “unindicted co-conspirators” no names were ever mentioned. The problems deepen when you consider the post-high school career of Danny Davis.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

A Bumpin' Club

This is the eighth in a series of posts inspired by a federal drug conspiracy case targeting a middle aged housewife and three of her children.

Brett Grayson and Jerry Stutes wanted to talk to Dexter Harmon, a smooth-talking entrepreneurial spirit who had been sent to federal prison in March of 2000 on the strength of inmate “snitch” testimony. The resilient Harmon quickly turned the snitch game to his own advantage, shaving his multi-decade sentence down to a mere six years by spilling the beans on his drug world associates.

Jerry Stutes remembered Dexter Harmon as the proprietor of the Carrier Club 88 in Church Point, Louisiana between 1989 and 1993. If the Colomb family were involved in a narcotics conspiracy, Dexter would know about it.

The Carrier Club 88 was named in honor of local sports legend Mark Carrier who starred as wide receiver for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the late 80s and early 90s. Dexter Harmon put little Church Point (pop. 5,000) on the map by booking big-city DJ’s and hungry rappers from Houston’s burgeoning Hip Hop scene.

But music wasn’t the only thing Harmon imported from Houston—the club was a drug haven. Patrons could see people snorting lines of powdered cocaine in the bathroom and drug deals went down from the minute the doors opened in the early evening till closing time at 2:00. The Rapper up on the stage was often smoking a joint, and the sweet aroma of marijuana was ubiquitous.

The Carrier Club was exciting because it was dangerous. The club was famous for its fights. The violence didn’t break out randomly; it was choreographed by visiting DJ’s.

“Is Rayne in the house?” the DJ would holler. The boys from Rayne would signal their presence with a roar. “Is Crowley in the house?” Another roar. “Is Lafayette in the house?”

Then the DJ would get down to business. “Now last week the brothers from Church Point kicked a little Crowley ass and I got one question—is Crowley gonna let that happen again?”

Boys from the Church Point and Rayne would square off in the middle of the dance floor as chairs were moved to the walls and a circle of humanity closed in around the combatants.

The Colomb boys were just entering High School when the Carrier Club hit its stride in the early 90s, but being underage was no problem—Dexter Harmon would turn you away at the front entrance and an associate would let you in at a side door. Wannabe Thugs slipped their guns into a girlfriend’s handbag then passed through Dexter’s metal detector. On Friday nights Harmon brought in strippers and on Sunday nights he would provide free food for the block parties he threw for patrons who arrived too late to get into the crowded club.

At 2:00 a.m. everyone would wander over to the Boulevard (the local youth drag) or hang out at the Sweet Shop, a fast food joint that stayed open late. The local police would start pulling over cars and writing tickets.

Dexter Harmon kept local politicians at bay for years by contributing generously to their campaigns. The Carrier Club was almost entirely segregated because white boys, intimidated by the gangsta culture that Dexter imported to bucolic Church Point. But things were getting out of hand. The local police had to call for back up when the vast throng of inebriated revelers became more than they could handle.

As the Carrier Club was enjoying its halcyon days in the early 90s the all-white Boulevard was gradually becoming integrated. In the small town south, football and church dominate the social life of every town with basketball running a distant third. Edward Colomb was a highly rated point guard during his high school years and college scouts would often be in the stands checking him out. His brother, Danny Davis, smashed every rushing record on the books in 1993, rushing for well over 100 yards a game and scoring two or three touchdowns a game. White girls were interested and the interest was reciprocated. In the early nineties all four of Ann Colomb’s sons had white girlfriends.

The response from the white community was swift and decisive. In 1993, while driving home from a pick-up basketball game in the black end of town, the car Edward Colomb and Sammy Davis were riding in was pulled over by a swarm of police officers. When the car was searched a marijuana cigarette and some suspicious looking crumbs were discovered. Edward and Sammy were searched and came up clean, but one of the boys they had been riding with was in acute physical distress. When his stomach was pumped at the hospital he told the police he had swallowed several rocks of crack cocaine.

Sheriff’s Deputy Dale Thibodeaux informed administrators at the High School that Sammy and Edward were drug dealers and they were summarily expelled. Ann and James Colomb sued the school board and the regional media gave the David-Goliath conflict a lot of play. Eventually, after Edward had missed two months of basketball, the boys were reinstated and the Colombs dropped their suit. Edward and Sammy pled no contest to possession charges, a decision the family would live to regret.

Randy Henry, the youngest of Ann Colomb’s four sons, dated a black girl named Margeaux Coleman during his high school years. An outstanding athlete and president of the National Honor Society, Margeaux was selected as valedictorian of her graduating class. A stunning beauty, she was selected as Homecoming Queen in 1995—the first black girl to win that distinction.

During the halftime coronation raucous boos filled the air and black-on-white fights broke out in stands and spilled over into the parking lot. Gunfire was heard throughout the town. One grocery store owner stood in front of his place with a shotgun, firing randomly into the air and declaring that no niggers would enter his place that night.

The following year Church Point selected David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon as the Grand Marshall of the white Mardi Gras parade (the black community, in accordance with tradition, has a separate parade). The message wasn’t subtle.

When another black girl was selected as homecoming queen the following year the school board quietly voted to discontinue the homecoming queen tradition. A court would be elected, but no queen would be crowned.

It was against this social backdrop that Danny Davis was arrested in 1995. Deputy Troy Hebert said he saw a drug dealer approach Danny’s white Mustang 5.0 and complete a hand-to-hand transfer before selling drugs to an undercover officer. Uneasy about taking such sketchy evidence to court, local officials tried to coerce Danny into taking a plea bargain. Danny refused.

A year later, Dale Thibodeaux and police officers from several regional jurisdictions broke into the home of Danny’s white girlfriend. A gun was pressed to Danny’s temple and his girlfriend, her mother, and even her infant son were also restrained at gunpoint while the house was searched. When the search came up empty Dale Thibodeaux grabbed Danny’s arm and dragged him triumphantly down the front steps where a news team, camera at the ready, was waiting to capture the arrest of a drug kingpin for the local market. Once again Danny was asked to accept a plea bargain; once again he refused.

By the mid 1990s Church Point was a transformed community. The Boulevard had been shut down. White girls who had dated Ann Colomb’s sons had been transferred to the Sacred Heart Academy in a nearby town. In 1997 a young black man who had driven from Arkansas to Church Point stopped Randy Henry and asked him where he could find the Carrier Club 88. When Randy said Dexter’s club had been closed for two years the young man was devastated. “Really,” he said, “Man, I heard that was a bumpin’ club.”

By 1997 Dexter Harmon was actively exploiting his contacts in Houston. This was the part of the story Brett Grayson and Jerry had traveled to Yazoo City to hear.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Shifting the Blame

This is the seventh in a series of posts inspired by a federal drug conspiracy case targeting a middle aged housewife and three of her children.

According to the warrant application Detective Dale Hundley gave a judge on October 22, 2001, a reliable confidential informant (C.I.) said that “Edward Colomb . . . was selling Crack Cocaine From His Mother Residence” (sic). According to the warrant application, Hundley handed the C.I. a transmitter concealed inside a pack of cigarettes and $50 in photocopied buy-money and sent him to the Colomb place.

Then things got complicated.

The raid turned up an embarrassment of riches—74 grams of crack cocaine, $160 in cash and a hand gun tucked inside a family room dresser. But the buy-money Edward took from Stevie and the bottle of crack cocaine Edward returned to his mother’s panty drawer had not been found.

Nagging questions were cropping up everywhere. If Ann Colomb had 74 grams of crack in her guest room dresser why did Edward have to be summoned in the first place? And if the gun found in the guest room dresser belonged to Tim Price’s mother; why wasn’t Tim being charged?

Tim was off the hook because his mother, Janet Kneeland, worked in the same office as Brian Hundley in Crowley. Besides, as the warrant application clearly reveals, the whole operation had been designed to nail Edward Colomb. The local police pulled over Edward’s car every time the young man got behind the wheel. They had booked him for every traffic violation on the book but his car always came up clean.

Brian Hundley wasn’t the only Crowley cop who worked should-to-shoulder with Tim Price’s mother. Jerry Stutes, an 18-year veteran of the Acadia Parish sheriff’s department, was also an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration and an investigator for Assistant U.S. attorney Brett Grayson. When the October 22nd raid hit the jackpot the feds were immediately interested.

Brett Grayson liked prosecuting narcotics conspiracies and was always on the lookout for promising cases. Unfortunately, if the 74 grams of cracked was tied to Tim Price the case would be handled at the state level. But if you tied the illegal substances to Edward Colomb and his momma Mr. Grayson had the makings of a first-class federal conspiracy.

The pot was sweetened considerably by the fact that Sammy Davis had been taking a nap in the corner bedroom when the police officers knocked down the door. A shotgun had been discovered in Sammy’s room and an officer distinctly remembered Sammy taking personal ownership of the weapon. Eight years earlier Sammy had pled no contest to a drug possession charge even though no drugs were found on his person—that made him a felon in possession of a firearm, a federal offense that dovetailed nicely with a narcotics conspiracy.

The deal between Edward Colomb and Stevie Charlot suddenly became the only way to associate Edward and his kin with the fruits of the search.

Although he claimed to have monitored the transaction in Ann Colomb’s bedroom, Brian Hundley had no tape to corroborate his testimony. For the Acadia Parish Sheriff’s Department this was standard operating procedure. A notorious liar like Stevie Charlot became instantly credible the moment a police officer testified that he was listening in. Recording the deal was unnecessary; in fact it created an independent witness to the alleged crime that could be exploited by creative defense attorneys.

Brian Hundley and Dale Thibodeaux needed a search warrant before they could search the car Sammy and Edward were riding in back in 1993. They told a judge that a CI had made a controlled buy at the Colomb residence. When the boys accepted a plea no one ever asked about the sketchy alleged buy that had started the wheels rolling.

This time it was different. First Stevie Charlot took his Grand Jury subpoena to Ann Colomb; then he called up Brett Grayson and said he wouldn’t testify against Ann and her boys. Finally, Charlot told a defense attorney that the alleged buy was pure fiction, and then amazed everyone by defying a federal Grand Jury summons. Without Charlot the federal case was in jeopardy.

But it went deeper than that. People had to wonder why a young man who would defy the government of the United States to protect Miss Ann Colomb could have casually betrayed her to the authorities a few weeks earlier for thirty pieces of silver.

Brett Grayson wasn’t going to let a two-bit street hustler rob him of a federal conspiracy case. While little Stevie eluded the police, the Assistant U.S. attorney and his investigator, Jerry Stutes, headed east on I-10 to the federal prison in Yazoo, Mississippi.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Cooperating with the Government

This is the sixth in a series of posts inspired by a federal drug conspiracy case targeting a middle aged housewife and three of her children.

Stevie Charlot sat in the U.S. Marshall’s holding cell in the federal courthouse in Lafayette. Tomorrow he would have to testify in front of a federal Grand Jury.

The day after the big bust at the Colomb’s place Stevie Charlot got a phone call telling him to come to the Parish Sheriff’s office in Crowley where he was told to stay away from the Colombs until further notice. That was it.

Three-and-a-half months later a Sheriff’s deputy delivered a federal Grand Jury summons and told Stevie that Brian Hundley wanted to talk to him. Stevie gradually figured out that he was expected to testify that he had purchased drugs from the Colombs the day of the raid. All the details were right there in Hundley’s police report.

Alarmed and infuriated, Stevie called up Assistant U.S. Attorney Brett Grayson and said he wouldn’t be testifying on February 19th. Grayson said that was fine—if Stevie didn’t show the authorities would have him arrested and revoke his parole. By a strange coincidence, Stevie’s parole was set to expire the very day he was being asked to testify before the Grand Jury.

On the advice of a friend, Charlot met with Ann Colomb. Ann told Stevie he had no choice but to testify, but he could protect himself. An hour later, Stevie was talking into attorney Daniel Stanford’s tape recorder.

Stevie told Stanford he and his mother had dropped by the Colomb place the day of the raid to tell “Miss Ann” that his father was being transferred to a hospital in Church Point. The visit lasted only a few seconds and no one got out of the car. Hospital records verify that Stevie’s father was transferred to the Church Point Hospital on October 22nd.

When Stevie Charlot was taken to the courtroom on March 12th, 2002 he was pretty sure what he was supposed to say and tried his best to say it. Unfortunately, Detective Brian Hundley had amended his police report so many times it was hard to know what the story was. Officer Troy Hebert was added to the story late in the game to corroborate Hundley’s account but doesn’t appear in earlier reports. In Stevie’s Grand Jury testimony Hebert doesn’t exist.

Having read Hundley’s report, Stevie knew he was supposed to have approached the Colomb residence on foot with a transmitter hidden inside his sock. He was supposed to have discussed a drug deal with Miss Ann and at some point she had searched him. Hundley’s report explained that transmission was poor so he only caught a few words of dialogue, but Ann distinctly said she would have to call her son Edward because she didn’t know where she kept her drugs.

Instead of asking Edward where he kept the drugs (this could have been done without risk using simple code language) she had her son drive all the way home. Edward then leads Miss Ann and Stevie down the hall to Ann’s bedroom where he locates a little medicine bottle stuffed with crack cocaine in Ann’s panty drawer. No one seems to have asked why Edward would choose such an unsettling hiding place for his drugs or why, if he did, his mother didn’t know about it. When the police raided the home hours later the medicine bottle had disappeared.

With Ann and Stevie at his side, Edward removed the bottle from his mother’s drawer, removed three rocks of crack cocaine, did the deal and returned the bottle to its hiding place. I have run this scenario past a few ex-drug dealers and the response is always the same: “that ain’t hapennin’.” You don’t show a crack addict where you keep your stash.

Stevie then left the Colomb home as quickly as possible, “Because, like I say, Mr. Brian was getting—he was getting worried, you know.”

Even Brett Grayson, the man asking the questions, was confused by this remark. “Yeah, but you wouldn’t know that,” he told Stevie, “You were inside the house.” Of course Stevie knew “Mr. Brian” was getting worried—it was right there in Hundley’s report.

When Brett Grayson asked Stevie if the Colombs suspected he had set them up, Stevie tried to be cooperative. He said that a few days after the raid he ran into Edward Colomb and Miss Ann at Jr.’s Food Mart. “And they was like, ‘Man, we know you set us up, brother. You was the last one who left from the house. Ain’t nobody else came after that. Right after you left, not even five or ten minutes, them people kicked down the door.”

The Colomb residence was raided a few minutes after Stevie and his mother dropped by. But Hundley’s reports clearly indicate that Stevie’s alleged buy occurred several hours before the raid. It’s hard to lie consistently.

Stevie’s parole was revoked even though he had cooperated with the government. Visited by a private investigator a few days after his Grand Jury adventure Stevie was back to his original story: he had never worn a wire and he certainly had never purchased drugs from the Colombs.

It isn’t hard to tell when Stevie Charlot is lying and when he is telling the truth. His truthful statements are consistent, corroborated by others and offered freely; his lies are bizarre, mutually contradictory, and uttered with a gun pressed firmly against his temple.

We are left with a disturbing question: If Stevie Charlot didn’t buy drugs from Ann and Edward Colomb on October 22nd, 2002, what are we to make of Detective Brian Hundley’s police report?