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.”