Category: Judicial misconduct

Slandered couple vindicated

Mark and Rhonda Lesher

By Alan Bean

This is a story about the limits of free speech on the internet, but it is goes much deeper than that.  This is also about what happens when a small town defense attorney challenges the local power structure.

Vergil Richardson, a basketball coach in nearby Texarkana, lost his job the moment charges were filed.  He hired Mark Lesher, a local attorney with a reputation for independent judgment, to represent him.

The following year, Robert Bridges, the man responsible for arresting the Richardsons, made a run for sheriff.  Mark and Rhonda Lesher supported Bridges’ opponent, Royce Abbot, and used the Richardson raid as an example of the cowboy tactics routinely employed by Bridges and the rest of the local law enforcement establishment.

That’s when the nasty emails began to appear on Red River County’s Topix site.  The Leshers were accused of every low down, nasty deed imaginable. The message was simple: Do you want to vote for Royce Abbott, the man who pals around with drug-dealing rapists? 

The tactic was as successful as it was vicious; Bridges won the election.

The Richardsons were vindicated almost exactly three years after their ordeal began.  The delay was created when Judge John Miller, a close friend of County Attorney Val Varley, refused to recuse himself from the case.  Only when the Texas Attorney General’s Office took over the prosecution from Mr. Varley was Miller forced to step aside.  Eventually, an obvious injustice was belatedly averted.  (more…)

Michael Morton case raises questions about prosecutorial accountability

By Alan Bean

This New York Times editorial touches on a case that will be familiar to readers of Scott Henson’s excellent Grits for Breakfast blog.  A few days ago, Scott provided this helpful summary of the Michael Morton imbroglio and its singular significance:

Grits recently named the Michael Morton exoneration out of Williamson County the biggest Texas criminal justice story of 2011. Morton spent a quarter-century in prison for allegedly murdering his wife before he was exonerated by DNA and a team of won’t-quit attorneys who fought Williamson County DA John Bradley over testing the evidence for six long years (prevailing only after the Legislature changed the law to remove Bradley’s grounds for objection). It turned out prosecutors 25 years ago had failed to release exculpatory evidence to the defense, and the man who apparently did so, then-elected DA Ken Anderson, is today a sitting Williamson County District Judge. You really can’t make this stuff up!

John Bradley is currently locked in a tight election race that will tell us how the good people of Williamson County (reputedly the most tuff-on-crime county in one of America’s most tuff-on-crime states) feel about the gross injustice perpetrated in their name.

But, as the NYT editorial below correctly observes, this isn’t just a story about a single county or a single state; the Michael Morton case is an egregious example of business as usual in our legal system.  It isn’t that all prosecutors routinely withhold exculpatory evidence from defense counsel (most do not); but if they do, the crime is rarely uncovered, and even when the truth is exposed there is little anyone can, or will, do about it.

In a few weeks I will be telling you how the DEA and the DOJ conspired to convict Ramsey Muniz of a crime he could not possibly have committed.  It all began with an investigative report riddled with baldfaced lies.  A DEA agent reported that her attention was drawn to Muniz by Ramada Inn employees who called to report suspicious behavior.  This report became the foundation for a widely circulated Houston Chronicle story (Muniz once ran for governor, so his legal woes attracted considerable attention) and the basis of the government’s case.  

This story was accepted as bedrock truth until attorney Dick DeGuerin decided to chat with the employees at the Ramada Inn.  They hadn’t been suspicious of Muniz at all, they told the Houston attorney, in fact, the polite businessman had been a model guest.  Furthermore, the Ramada Inn hadn’t contacted the DEA, the DEA contacted the motel. 

When it became clear that a DEA agent had repeatedly perjured herself, the government simply adjusted its story on the fly as the presiding Judge pretended not to notice.

That’s the real problem with prosecutorial misconduct–nobody cares–at least nobody with the power to do anything about it.   If you don’t believe me, read on.     (more…)

Head in the sand over prosecutorial misconduct

Law Professor Erwin Chemerinsky is dismayed by Supreme Court rulings that protect unscrupulous prosecutors from the consequences of their actions.  The Friends of Justice share this concern.  The pious doctrine that American citizens stand before the law as equals is a worthy aspirational goal, but it bears little relation to actual practice.  The title of this post is taken from the title of professor Chemerinsky’s article in the National Law Journal.

In the real world, American citizens are scattered along a continuum stretching from low-status black males (who can be prosecuted and convicted on the basis of uncorroborated snitch testimony) all the way to prosecutors and judges whose professional behavior, no matter how flagrantly illegal, cannot be prosecuted at all.  We cannot admit that some can be convicted without real evidence (ala Tulia) while others smoking-gun isn’t enough to put people like Terry McEarchern (Tulia, TX), Brett Grayson (AUSA, Western Louisiana) and Harry Connick Sr. (New Orleans) out of business.  (more…)

Ira Glass exposes the drug war in a small Georgia town

By Alan Bean

If you’re like me, Ira Glass is the seductive, soft-spoken storyteller you occasionally encounter while working in the garage on a Saturday afternoon.  This America Life is captivating radio.  Ira Glass pulls us into a story with unadorned language.  He speaks without exclamation points or rhetorical flourishes, but you can’t stop listening.  The other day I was painting some lawn furniture I had rescued from a neighbor’s lawn (he was throwing it out, I promise!) when This America Life came on.  I was disappointed to learn that Ira Glass had ceded his microphone to a guest storyteller and pictured the unassuming Ira catching a few rays in the Bahamas.  But I was wrong.  Ira was down in Georgia, putting the finishing touches to an hour-long expose of Amanda Williams, a Superior Court judge who suffers from a peculiarly American form of madness.

Here’s a summary of the Part 1: (more…)

A progressive icon hears from his critics

Craig Watkins has been an inspiration to criminal justice reformers since he became Dallas County District Attorney in 2006.  There aren’t many black prosecutors in Texas so Watkins’ narrow election victory provided some much-needed balance.  But it went deeper than that.  Watkins had the backing of South Dallas ministers, people who have felt the impact of mass incarceration in their congregations.

“We’re going to reduce this crime rate,” Watkins promised in his 2006 acceptance speech. “We’re going to address the underlying reasons why people are committing crime.”

After generations of convict-at-any-cost prosecution, prevention and redemption were to be the new watchwords.

For the most part, Mr. Watkins has delivered.  He has cooperated with innocence programs and has created his own integrity unit to cull through old convictions for signs of wrongful conviction.  The Dallas County DA isn’t solely responsible for the dramatic stream of DNA exonerations flowing from Dallas County, but he has certainly facilitated the process.

No one was surprised when Watkins cleaned house shortly after his election by firing several of the prosecutors he inherited from the Bill Hill administration.  The new man was working with a new vision and needed assistant DAs who were willing to get with the program. 

But it wasn’t long before Watkins’ admirers were lamenting his thin skin.  A prolonged struggle with the County Commissioners punctuated by angry rants from the DA did little to enhance his stature as a statesman.  (more…)

When the police knock down your door: more on the Richardson Raid

Vergil and Mark Richardson

By Alan Bean

Friends of Justice was first to bring you the troubling story of Mark and Vergil Richardson, but we certainly aren’t the last.  First we had Wade Goodwyn’s excellent story for NPR’s All Things Considered, and now Jordan Smith of the Austin Chronicle is using the Richardson story as an entre into the strange world of no-knock searches for The Crime Report.  Radley Balko, one of the experts interviewed for Smith’s story, reports that “the number of SWAT call-outs averaged 3,000 annual between the 1980s and 2005. Now the annual figure is roughly 50,000.”

When Police Break Down Your Door

Jordan Smith

December 15, 2010

An increase in the use of  ‘no-knock’ warrants around the country has alarmed civil liberties advocates.

On Nov. 17, 2007, Vergil Richardson was sitting at a table in the house he owns in the small northeast Texas town of Clarksville, playing dominoes with several relatives, including his half-brother Kevin Calloway, when the front door exploded inward and the living room was flooded with police.

“They just broke into the house,” Vergil recalled recently. “They had guns on us and threw me down on the floor.” (more…)

“The Confessions”: Frontline highlights the case of the Norfolk Four

I was out-of-town on a speaking engagement when “The Confessions” originally aired on Frontline.  I strongly urge you to watch the entire program online.  It won’t be a pleasant experience.  Listening to this twisted saga kept taking me back to the recent trial of Curtis Flowers–the stories are very different in some respects, but wrongful convictions follow a familiar pattern.

Two of the attorneys representing the defendents in this case, by the way, are Des Hogan and George Kendall, key members of the legal “Dream Team”  involved in the fight for justice in Tulia, Texas.

The story of the Norfolk Four revolves around aggressive interrogation, false confession, and prosecutorial tunnel vision.  Once the detectives responsible for the investigation latched onto a theory of the crime, they clung to it tenaciously–facts be damned. (more…)