“Guilty Before Proven Innocent”: The Colomb Story

I have been working for almost two years to get this amazing story into print.  When the government uses a snitch parade to convict an innocent family you would think the media would snap to attention.  Journalists find the story compelling; but this has proven to be a tough story to get past an editorial board.  We like to think well of our government and its now-ancient drug war and the Colomb saga makes that impossible.

A little over a year ago, I brought Ann Colomb to Atlanta for a summit on the use and abuse of informants.  Moments after my presentation, a young man was standing in front of me with his hand extended.  “Hi, I’m Radley Balko,” he said, “and I’d really like to do this story.”

Reason magazine isn’t Time or Newsweek; it’s a modest publication with a strongly libertarian bent.  When I brought Radley Balko to the Lafayette area to begin his research, we had plenty of political conversations, especially when we had to sit in a restaurant for four hours waiting for somebody to pick up his lifeless rental car.  We didn’t agree on everything; but we shared a disdain for the war on drugs.

Perhaps you’re asking what could possibly be wrong with a war on drugs.  Read Mr. Balko’s article on the Colomb family and you will begin to understand.

Friends of Justice began advocating for Ann Colomb and her three sons in the fall of 2004.  Nancy and I were attending a conference in New Orleans and Ann and her daughter Jennifer drove three hours to hand us three massive binders full of discovery materials. 

“Don’t worry,” I told Ann after I had spent two full weeks digesting the pertinent facts, “there’s no way the federal government is going to take a case this weak to trial.” 

Nonetheless, I made several fact-finding trips to Church Point to figure out why the government would even consider paying convicted drug dealers to lie.  The payments were in time, not money; but when you’re locked up, minutes and hours mean far more than dollars and cents.

In the spring of 2006, Nancy and I were heading off on a vacation to Colorado when Ann called.  “Mr. Bean,” she said, her voice trembling, “I really think they are going to take us to trial.”

A couple of weeks later I was sitting in a federal courtroom in Lafayette watching a bizarre legal spectacle unfold.  Every day, after the trial recessed for the day, I drove to the library down the street from the courthouse and tapped out a summary of the day’s events.  Every media outlet between New Orleans and Houston (and a thousand people on my email list) received these dispatches and by the second week of trial a reporter from the local paper was in the courtroom and my dispatches were being featured in the paper’s blog.  

By the end of the trial, the entire community was debating the legitimacy of uncorroborated snitch testimony. 

When the jury convicted Ann Colomb and her three sons, a loud wail rose from the two dozen family members huddled at the back of the courtroom.  Never in my life have I witnessed such abject despair.  As the verdict was read, children lost fathers, wives lost husbands, and an extended family surrendered its matriarch.  That night I left off being a criminal justice reformer and became a pastor to a broken family.

When the family was released from captivity at the conclusion of a day-long hearing, we all waited in the heat for three hours while the prisoners were processed.  Nancy Bean took all the children to McDonald’s for ice cream when it looked like some of them where on the verge of passing out.  When the prison doors finally swung open, we all joined hands as one of the alleged drug kingpins led us in the Lord’s prayer. 

That’s when I decided that, whatever the cost, I was going to get this story to the world.  I have now made two dozen trips to Church Point and the Colombs have become a second family.

Federal Judge Tucker Melancon’s denunciation of uncorroborated snitch testimony is stunning. I never thought I would hear a man in his position speak so frankly. Melancon knew that the “evidence” used to convict the Colomb family was completely lacking in credibility, but I believe my running critique of the government’s case validated and bolstered his personal conviction.

This is a long and complex story and Radley Balko tells it well.  Please give his ten-page article the attention it deserves.

Alan Bean, Friends of Justice