Tuesday, January 11, 2005

John Read's Boot Camp

This is the third installment of Rev. Alan Bean's special Grits series from Tom Coleman's perjury trial. Also, see today's story from the Amarillo paper, both AP and Reuters had brief coverage, and a Lubbock TV station did a piece on falsely convicted Tulians who came down for the trial.

Although Coleman's lies had sent Joe Moore away for ninety years, the big hog farmer didn't think much was likely to happen on the first day of Tom's perjury trial. In a sense he was right. The morning was squandered wrangling over frivolous motions; the afternoon was consumed in jury selection.

But for a Tulia junkie like me, yesterday was full-to-busting with fascinating detail. Once in the courtroom I sat down next to Dwight McDonald, the attorney who defended Kareem Abdul Jabbar White back in September of 2000. "That was the worst day of my adult life," Dwight told me, "I wouldn't try a case in Swisher County for any kind of money." McDonald had been so sure of impending victory he called up his lawyer pals while Kareem's jury deliberated. I remember wrapping the black attorney in a bear hug seconds after the guilty verdict was announced.

"If they can do that to Creamy," McDonald stuttered, "he could do it to me. He could do it to my daughters."

Indeed, he could.

Last Friday Read told the media that Judge Gleason had failed to show for a scheduled hearing and Gleason wasted no time announcing his displeasure.

"At no time did this court set a hearing for Friday," Gleason said in a controlled baritone. "If I schedule a hearing I'll be there for it. I was surprised and dismayed by some of the comments made on camera by Mr. Read on Friday. I consider these comments to be contumacious." "Contumacious," I later learn, refers to actions reflecting contempt for court authority.

Both sides in this fight have added new members. Jennifer Klar, one of the attorneys who came to Tulia for evidentiary hearings in March of 2003, is working with special prosecutors Rod Hobson and John Nation. Marvin Marshall, the Plainview Judge (known to black defendants as "the hanging judge," or simply "God,") appeared beside attorneys Read and Kirk Lechtenberger.

Marvin Marshall led things off by arguing, somewhat circuitously, that Rod Hobson and John Nation should have recused themselves in favor of Swisher County Attorney Mike Criswell and Wally Hatch (the Plainview City Attorney who succeeded Terry McEachern as District Attorney for Swisher and Hale counties). The fact that neither Criswell nor Hatch has ever tried a single felony case makes this suggestion attractive to Coleman's defense team, but the law was clearly on the state's side and the motion was denied.

Tom Coleman's grooming has undergone a makeover. When Tom Coleman appeared in eight Tulia drug trials his ponytail reached his shoulders and he wore a scruffy beard and blue jeans. Today, Coleman's closely cropped hair was parted neatly on the left and he appeared in an elegantly tailored dark suit, white shirt, red tie and American flag lapel pin. Except for the goofy look on his face he could have been mistaken for a presidential candidate waiting for the fundraiser to begin.

Most of the reporters were from Panhandle papers and television stations, but a number of major Texas dailies were on hand and Betsy Blaney of the AP and Jon Herskovitz of Reuters are writing stories for the national market (Blaney's initial offering appeared in today's UK Guardian). In addition, two documentary film crews are covering the Coleman trial. Hardly the media extravaganza we witnessed when thirteen defendants walked free in June of 2003, but a solid showing nonetheless.

When jury selection began Rod Hobson treated the 117 members of the jury pool to a slick PowerPoint civics lesson. The diminutive attorney's description of the legal process was so balanced and fair I wondered if he was simply trotting out the presentation he employs as a defense attorney.

"How many walked in the room, looked at the defendant and said, 'I wonder what he did?'" But that wouldn't do, Hobson told the jury panel, the defendant is to be considered innocent until the state can prove each element of the indictment beyond a reasonable doubt. Pointing out the window to the county jail across the street, Hobson said the standard of proof is high because "freedom and reputation are at stake."

Hobson's voir dire presentation was polished, professional, even entertaining in places. Coleman's attorney would have to work to keep pace.

During the next break we learned that Freddie Brookins Jr. and Sr. had been told they would not be able to attend the trial because they would be called as witnesses later in the week. My heart sank. Freddie Jr. spent almost four years tangled up in Coleman's lies and his family shared his agony. The Brookins family has been eagerly anticipating the Coleman trial since the now-disgraced narc was indicted in April of 2003.

Later in the day we were treated to a lengthy list of potential witnesses including public officials from Cochran County, every defense attorney involved in the Tulia drug trials, a laundry list of Tulia defendants, Sheriff Larry Stewart, former District Attorney Terry McEachern, Judges Ed Self and Jack Miller, Lubbock attorney Charlotte Bingham and, as if that weren't enough, Texas Governor Rick Perry and U.S. Senator John Cornyn. Read wants to know if jury panelists are familiar with any of these people. Obviously, most of these people are not going to testify. My fear is that Freddie Brookins Jr. and Sr. will be forced to miss the trial without getting to testify.

My great fear is that Freddie Brookins Jr. and Sr. will miss the trial and still not be called to testify.

"I'm a simple man with simple needs," John Read told the jury pool. Without hesitation he asked a juror with a Ph.D how he had answered when a questionnaire asked for his race. "Human," the man said. The jury panel tittered. "That's the kind of juror I like," Read roared. "I ask him, 'What race are you?' And he answers, 'Human'. You ask me, 'What kind of lawyer are you?' And I say. 'I'm good! The best!"

Unlike most defense attorneys, John Read is not satisfied with bland admonitions about civic duty. He tells the jury panel that most of them, perhaps all of them, are biased against his client and that they should have the guts to admit it.

"There are those sitting here today," he says, "that think in their heart of hearts that my client must have done something or the Governor wouldn't have pardoned those people."

"I saw a lot of coverage on what happened in Tulia," an African American panelist answers, "and, to be honest with you, being that so many of them were African American, it makes a difference to me; it changes how I feel."

A woman raises her hand. "I just went through a divorce, and I have a real problem with men that lie."

Mr. Read creates a revivalist courtroom atmosphere then calls folks to repentance. And damned if they don't repent! I have never seen anything faintly like it in Tulia.

"Do all witnesses tell the truth all the time?" he asks. "They should, they're supposed to, but we all know they don't."

Read tells a man who has done computer work for Charlotte Bingham that he will be biased by the simple fact that he likes her and thinks she is a good person. That would make it difficult, possibly impossible, for him to discredit her testimony. He doesn't suggest this might be true; he strongly implies it is true.

"There is no definition of 'beyond a reasonable doubt'. We used to have one but they took it away from us."

"Is there anybody here who believes that 'beyond a reasonable doubt' is too high a burden? If you think that standard is too high and intend to follow a lesser standard please raise your hand."

"There are those among you that feel that if a person has been indicted and arrested they must have done something wrong or they wouldn't be here."

"After 5,000 felony cases I've tried I know I can get you indicted for anything. I can get you indicted."

Read asks Coleman to stand and face the jury panel. He lectures them on the need to give his client the presumption of innocence. He dwells on the fact that many in this room think he must be guilty in their heart of hearts like a revival preacher looking to convert a room full of sinners.

He gets one woman to admit that she is having trouble believing that Coleman would be on trial if he didn't do anything. "I guess I could take each one of you one-on-one and eventually we'd get there," Read says. The not-so-subtle implication is that every one of these sorry bastards is presuming his client is guilty.

"There are some who believe the accused must prove his innocence before he can be acquitted," he continues. "If you feel that way it is your obligation as a citizen to tell me about it."

"There are those amongst you who would feel that if a person fails to testify in his own behalf you would hold it against them. If you are that person, raise you hand. Come on! I'm talking to you. Come on!"

Four people raise their hands.

A reporter leans over and whispers, "It's like Gordon Liddy and Johnnie Cochran had a baby and named him John Read."

"The defense has got to prove nada!" Read bellows contemptuously. "Mr. Coleman didn't volunteer to come in here because the thought it would be fun; he was dragged in here against his will. He doesn't have to do anything to prove his innocence. Why should he? Tell me that, why should he?"

The voir dire process is John Read's boot camp, a two-hour smack down conducted with humor and style. I have never seen anything even vaguely like it in Tulia, Texas.

Tuesday morning at nine o'clock sharp the real action starts.

Alan Bean,
Tulia, Texas

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks for bringing your blog to my attention. I'll be reading faithfully. You have an incredible number of links to legal resources, my only source in the past has been ACSBlog. I'm a constant reader of Burnt Orange Report, and the Agonist. Thanks!