Wednesday, July 20, 2011
By Heather Miller
How the federal justice system incentivizes questionable and often unreliable witnesses, including jailhouse snitches, to prosecute the War on Drugs
“Just because the United States of America accuses somebody of being guilty of a crime doesn’t make it so.” — Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Jarzabek, chief criminal deputy of the Western District of Louisiana, speaking to U.S. District Judge Tucker Melancon at the conclusion of a high-profile public corruption trial in Monroe.
Mike Wyatt is, by trade, a master mechanic. He’s an artisan of all things auto who transforms factory features on vehicles into customized pieces for car and stereo enthusiasts alike. A hard-working small business owner, Wyatt spends 60-90 hours a week at his Jefferson Street auto and sound shop, a 9,000-square-foot haven for a specialized craft he’s been perfecting for more than 20 years.
Mike Wyatt is 44 years old and has no criminal record. He’s a family man, the husband of a nurse practitioner, a father who spends his weekends outdoors with his wife and son. And now, Mike Wyatt may spend the next 10 years in a federal prison — and the rest of his life paying up to $4 million in fines to the federal government.
On July 20, 2006, a few minutes after B&M Auto Sound and 4x4 opened at 9 a.m., federal agents armed with assault rifles stormed the local business, searching every person, every vehicle and every inch of the building. A few months later, Wyatt was indicted by a federal grand jury, accused by the U.S. government of conspiring with 12 other people to traffic mass amounts of cocaine and marijuana from South Texas to Lafayette over a four-year period. His role? The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Louisiana claims Wyatt installed secret compartments for a group of customers who used them to stash drugs, guns and money as they crossed state lines. The feds have never said Wyatt ever possessed drugs, distributed illegal substances or dealt with proceeds from drug transactions. If convicted, Wyatt’s prison time could be close or equal to that of the kingpin who’s pleaded guilty to leading the lucrative drug ring.
What’s even more compelling than the seemingly excessive charges against Wyatt is that hidden compartments are legal to possess and install under federal law and in most states, Louisiana included. The hideaways can be used to store almost anything — purses, jewelry, guns, valuables — and are just one small component of services — wheels, speakers, TVs, etc. — that a business like B&M provides.
The key to the government’s charges against Wyatt is proving the business owner had direct knowledge of how the compartments were being used.
Court documents reveal that the only person so far who has made that claim against Wyatt — aside from a federal prosecutor — is Eric Alexander, the drug ring’s mastermind whose testimony has been proven false — and whose prison sentence depends on him providing “substantial assistance” to the prosecution of the three remaining defendants who have refused to accept a plea agreement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
No doubt, hidden compartments are problematic for law enforcement officials working to combat heavy drug traffickers. An FBI bulletin published on its website in October 2010 examines the use of hidden compartments and outlines the very limited legal measures available to punish the installers. Because there is no federal law “specifically addressing the design, manufacture or use of a trap ... charges must be addressed through a statute dealing with drug paraphernalia.”
According to the FBI circular, investigators trying to secure a criminal charge for an installer must prove that the suspect in question designed the compartment knowing it would be used for illegal purposes. To prove such knowledge, the FBI bulletin says the investigation involves more than just physical evidence linking the target to the installed trap. The procedure, according to the FBI, also calls for recorded conversations between the installer and an undercover agent or informant, “in which the suspect is placed on notice that the device will be used for concealing a controlled substance.”
“Unfortunately, this appears to be the only way that the required elements may be proven,” the FBI literature states.
No court documents in Wyatt’s case reveal any such recording, and Wyatt’s charge of conspiracy to distribute cocaine, cocaine base (crack-cocaine) and marijuana is strikingly more severe than the six- to nine-month prison sentence and $250,000 maximum fine he could receive for a federal paraphernalia conviction.
Yet as the government continues on its mission to link the secret compartments to Wyatt’s widespread conspiracy to distribute drugs he never possessed, his case highlights a hidden playbook of the federal government’s own secret maneuvers that raise allegations of government misconduct — and unveil a choir of convicts contaminating the judicial process in exchange for a “Get Out of Jail Free” card.
|Mike Wyatt at B&M Auto Sound|
ALEXANDER, THE GREAT LIAR
In January 2009, Wyatt and the two remaining co-defendants were three days into their jury trial when one of the defense attorneys collapsed before court due to pre-existing health problems. The presiding judge declared a mistrial, but opening statements had already been put into the record — and kingpin Alexander had already taken the stand.
According to court transcripts, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brett Grayson never claimed in his opening statement that Wyatt was aware of the drug activity. He told the jurors that B&M was “where Eric Alexander and a number of his associates ... would have secret compartments built into their motor vehicles, which they utilized to carry controlled substances, drug proceeds, and firearms.”
Wyatt’s defense attorney, William Goode, didn’t dispute Grayson’s assertions.
“Eric Alexander was a customer of B&M. He was a repeat customer of B&M. He referred people to B&M for services. He bought wheels and stereos and TVs for his vehicle. He had some woofer boxes built in. He was a customer just like any other customer,” Goode said in his own opening statement to the jury. “But what Mike Wyatt did not know was that he was in a drug situation with some other people. He didn’t have a clue. Eric Alexander dressed nicely. He spoke nicely ... He did nothing that would allow them to stereotype him as a person that deals in cocaine. But when he got caught and is facing 20 to life, he’s a two-time loser. He is going to rat out everybody he can to try to get them to serve his time.”
When Alexander testified against Wyatt, he told the court that Wyatt must have known about his role in the drug trade because he stopped by B&M to scope out the shop in late July or early August of 1999 — a few weeks before Alexander was set to begin a prison sentence in Texas for marijuana trafficking charges. Alexander claims to have told Wyatt that he was en route to prison for a drug conviction; he’d have to wait until his return to have any work done on his vehicle.
The story flowed from Alexander’s lips with no hesitation, no reason for jurors to believe anything else. But there was one minor flaw in his statement: B&M wasn’t open for business in 1999. The government’s own evidence seized in the 2006 raid includes documents that show B&M’s incorporation wasn’t granted until August 2000. Other records obtained by the government reveal that B&M didn’t even begin leasing the building until February 2000. Alexander was lying under oath — and according to the defense, the government knew it when he took the stand.
The feds didn’t withhold the evidence from the defense. It was given to attorney Goode in pre-trial discovery as it should have been and could have been addressed during cross-examination. But in the highly competitive game of criminal justice, knowingly placing a liar on the stand marks a personal foul.
Goode immediately asked the court to declare a mistrial on the basis of prosecutorial misconduct. Although Grayson argued that he had not sifted through the many volumes of files collected during the raid, according to the transcript it was a moot point. The government received a second copy of B&M’s incorporation papers from the Secretary of State’s Office in November 2006, four months after the raid. Someone from the government double-checked B&M’s timeline of existence.
Alarmed by the revelation, U.S. District Judge Rebecca Doherty told Grayson she had “grave concern” over what she just heard.
“This should not have happened,” she said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Judge Doherty ordered a brief recess to see what, if any, sanctions were warranted for Grayson’s actions. When she returned, however, Grayson was better prepared.
|Assistant U.S. Attorney Brett Grayson|
CAUGHT IN A TRAP
Wyatt, who still owns B&M, founded the auto and sound shop in 2000 with a business partner, Barry Neveu. Goode says in court records that “at B&M Barry Neveu ran the front office. He did the sales. He was in contact with the people. He collected the money. Mike Wyatt is the guy in the back turning the wrenches and running various jobs that went on. The lift work. A specialty in stereos and customized speaker boxes, window tinting, all those things.”
While Wyatt spent his days in the garage, Neveu wasn’t the only employee at B&M working the front office. And not everyone who worked for B&M Auto at the time of the federal investigation has claimed innocence. Neveu’s then wife, Jennifer McKnight, was heavily involved in the front office work from the start. Her mother, Deborah McKnight, was also a B&M employee at one time.
Neveu was explicitly aware of Alexander’s chosen profession. According to Neveu’s own court records, he was a closet cocaine user whose personal supply relied on Alexander. And when Neveu needed money to “float B&M’s operations,” he went to Alexander for help.
Alexander gave Neveu cash and drugs, and when it was time to be repaid Neveu instructed B&M office employees to write checks to Alexander through the company. The deal created an illusion that Alexander was working for B&M. As a drug dealer, he needed to appear gainfully employed.
Neveu, who was among the 13 people charged in the drug conspiracy, pleaded guilty in 2008 to conspiracy to commit money laundering and tampering with a witness (his ex-wife). He was sentenced to five years probation; Wyatt was never implicated in the money laundering scheme.
Jennifer and Deborah McKnight have been cooperating witnesses since the start of the investigation, according to court documents, which may explain why the two haven’t been indicted in the conspiracy despite their knowledge and participation in the money laundering. With the defense alleging that federal agents threatened the McKnights with statements like, “We can come and arrest you at any time,” and “You don’t have immunity,” the two have no reason to dispute the government’s case.
But Goode, in court filings, says Jennifer and Deborah McKnight have repeatedly told investigators and Grayson that Wyatt had no idea what was taking place in the front office — and no knowledge of illegal activity. And when federal agents approached Deborah McKnight while she was sitting in the witness waiting room at the courthouse in January 2009, she told them she couldn’t testify to the business operating in 1999, according to court filings. She didn’t know. She wasn’t involved with B&M until 2002. The two federal agents pressed on, insisting she take the stand and corroborate the 1999 theory. She couldn’t.
So one of the agents, as defense records claim, phoned Deborah McKnight’s daughter, who was on standby and not required to be at the courthouse during the first trial. He asked her again if the business was in any way operating in 1999. When he hung up the phone, he told Deborah McKnight that her daughter confirmed it was true. She believed him.
When court returned from recess, Grayson informed the judge he had another witness willing to testify that B&M was operating in 1999. Deborah McKnight took the stand and corroborated Alexander’s false testimony, telling the court that although B&M officially opened in 2000, preparations were under way in 1999. It was enough to satisfy the court and deny Goode’s motion for a mistrial.
But when Deborah McKnight left the courthouse, defense records say she learned the truth: Her daughter, when pressured by federal agents who called her earlier that day, again told the investigators there was no possibility that the business was operating on Jefferson Street in 1999.
JUSTICE ON HOLD
Because the co-defendant’s attorney was too ill to proceed with trial, Wyatt’s case has been pending in federal court for five years. His second jury trial is set for February 2012, though Goode has filed a motion to have Wyatt’s charges dismissed with prejudice due to the government’s misconduct. In his court filings, Goode attached an audio recording of the McKnights attesting to the government’s coercion and lies that sparked the fateful testimony.
Prosecutor Grayson did not return calls for comment.
Goode declined to comment on the charges against Wyatt, citing the pending trial and motions to dismiss, but when asked how the federal indictment has impacted his client, he says, “As I have stated in open court and in my pleadings, Mike Wyatt is an innocent man. As would be the case for anyone in his position, the fact that he has been criminally charged in federal court for something he did not do has been devastating to him and his family.”
When The Independent visited Wyatt at B&M on a recent Friday afternoon, he thanked the newspaper for stopping by but declined to comment on his case.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has responded to the misconduct allegations by way of William Flanagan, counsel for the U.S. attorney who served as interim U.S. attorney before Stephanie Finley’s appointment. Flanagan denies any wrongdoing by the government or its agents, while never specifically addressing whether agents suborned false testimony from Deborah McKnight. The government claims it is ready to support its actions if the judge calls for a hearing but reiterates its stance that even if there is evidence of “egregious prosecutorial misconduct,” previous precedents have ruled that the indictment can only be dismissed if it’s shown that the government’s actions will impede the defendant’s right to a fair trial.
“In this case, the defendant has not been convicted of anything,” Flanagan says in the government’s response. “Factual issues related to the issue of the defendant’s guilty knowledge, as well as an assessment of the credibility of trial issues, are best left to the jury.”
Fortunately for Wyatt, a mistrial barred the first jury from having to decide his fate without knowing the extreme lengths to which the government went to secure a conviction. Others who have faced prosecutor Grayson in court haven’t been so lucky.
|Alan Bean and Mary Ann Colomb|
In October 2001, an Acadia Parish Sheriff’s Office task force, again armed with assault weapons and a battering ram for the front door, raided the Church Point home of Mary Ann and James Colomb and recovered a handgun and 72 grams of crack cocaine — a measurable success for a small-town, local bust.
The drugs were found in a dresser in the guest room of the home, where Mary Ann Colomb’s daughter, Jennifer, was spending the night with her boyfriend, Timothy Price. Alan Bean, a Tulia, Texas, minister turned justice reform activist who founded the nonprofit Friends of Justice and brought the case to light, says Price left the home amid the raid to take James Colomb to the hospital for a severe panic attack and abnormal heart beats caused by the stir. Price later drove to the police station to claim the drugs and firearm.
As for Mary Ann Colomb, she was handcuffed at gunpoint while police searched her home and subsequently arrested her in connection with the drugs. Investigators ignored Price’s confession despite his statements to local authorities, who later confirmed that the gun found alongside the crack cocaine had been taken from Price’s mother, a police officer. He eventually hired an attorney and invoked his Fifth Amendment right when asked about the drugs in court, but Price has since reaffirmed his original confession in a 2008 report by Reason Magazine, a monthly publication of the nonprofit, libertarian research group the Reason Foundation.
Not long after Mary Ann Colomb’s arrest in Acadia Parish by a local agency, Grayson decided to take the case to the federal level, bringing three of Mary Ann Colomb’s four sons into a drug conspiracy indictment that spanned a 10-year period.
The federal government accused Colomb and her sons of running one of the largest cocaine rings in South Louisiana. The indictment was based on four other run-ins her sons had with law enforcement, only one of which ended with a conviction. The other three charges were dismissed before they ever reached a jury or judge in state court, but in federal court those “overt acts” equated to a high-level conspiracy. The one conviction, according to Reason Magazine, stemmed from an arrest in 1993, when Sammy Davis Jr. (Colomb’s son from a former marriage) and Edward Colomb were in a car that was pulled over and eventually searched for contraband. The two other men in the vehicle were carrying marijuana and cocaine; all four in the car were charged with felony drug possession.
Those facts didn’t sway Grayson in his quest to bring down the Colomb-Davis cartel kings, one of whom, as noted by U.S. District Judge Tucker Melancon, drove a car with no reverse. “Now, I’m not saying drug dealers are all flashy and drive big cars … but when you tell me … over whatever period of time … this drug conspiracy in a little bitty house in Church Point, Louisiana, there were $4 million worth of drugs going through there,” Melancon says in a court transcript. “I’ll tell you that defies any kind of credibility at all based on my 61-plus years on the planet.”
But Grayson’s narrative was backed by more than 30 federal prisoners being housed from Texas to Mississippi, all willing to testify to just how much the Colomb boys were trafficking through the tiny town of Church Point. Since parole has been abolished in the federal justice system, the only option inmates have for reductions on lengthy, federally mandated drug sentences is to provide “substantial assistance,” i.e. damning testimony, to federal prosecutors.
Judge Melancon had his reservations about the government overwhelmingly relying on prison witnesses to go after the Colombs. He presided over a previous drug conspiracy case in which inmates who testified were later linked to a network of federal prisoners caught selling and sharing court info and photos of people with pending drug cases. Melancon barred Grayson from calling all of the 30-plus witnesses, but Grayson appealed and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Melancon’s ruling.
“Grayson had a real zeal for prosecuting these cases,” says activist Bean, who also shed light on the racially polarizing Jena 6 controversy that made national headlines when a noose hung on school grounds prompted acts of youth violence. “He found them to be very easy if you didn’t use the critical judgment that prosecutors are supposed to use. And mostly white juries tend to believe anything that law enforcement has to say. I kept telling Ann Colomb the feds won’t go to court with a case this flimsy. I was caught unprepared when they did.”
HERE’S THE SNITCH
By the time the trial began in 2006, Grayson had decided to call only half of the 30 snitch witnesses he originally planned to use.
The witnesses began lining up one after another, each pinpointing Mary Ann Colomb and her sons as major cocaine distributors.
The same day the trial started, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Mickel, one of Grayson’s colleagues in Lafayette, received a letter from federal inmate Quinn Alex, who was concerned about some dealings he had with his former cell mate at a prison in Three Rivers, Texas. Alex said in his letter that his cell mate, Charles Anderson, offered to sell Alex pictures of the Colomb-Davis family and key documents pertaining to their case.
“I told Mr. Anderson I wouldn’t get on the stand and lie on someone I didn’t know, then he began to tell me how it would work for me to get a time cut,” Alex says in the letter.
Alex had his mother wire more than $2,200 to Anderson’s girlfriend as payment for the help Anderson offered. But Alex wasn’t writing because the Colomb-Davis family was tugging at his conscience. He was livid because Anderson was transferred shortly after the arrangement was made and Alex never received what he was promised.
Grayson waited three days to present the damaging letter to the court. Former U.S. Attorney Donald Washington, now in private practice, tells The Independent the delay stemmed from the U.S. Attorney’s Office trying to verify the allegations. Several witnesses had already testified by the time the letter was revealed. Melancon denied the defense attorneys’ motion for a mistrial. He later admitted that he should have.
“Frankly … I fell on the sword in that case,” Melancon said in court transcripts.
A jury convicted Mary Ann Colomb and her sons based on the testimony they heard, and the Colomb family was sent to jail while they awaited sentencing. Ironically, those few months behind bars are what eventually set the Colomb family free.
While in the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center awaiting sentencing, Sammy Davis Jr. befriended an inmate who had been transferred from Beaumont Low, a federal prison in South Texas that housed several of the witnesses who testified in Colomb-Davis. After realizing who Davis was and how he ended up in jail awaiting a lengthy prison sentence, the inmate, referred to in court documents as “John Doe,” wrote a letter to the court that prompted even more scrutiny of the testimony given at trial.
“John Doe” says while at Beaumont Low, he witnessed a group of the inmates who testified in Colomb-Davis huddling over documents and reviewing pictures. His descriptions were precise enough to prompt action by the court.
“It was obvious to me that these persons and others were preparing to testify against people for something that they did not do,” the anonymous inmate says. “I’m willing to testify in court about what I saw because what they did was just cold. However, I am concerned about the danger I am putting myself in, and request that the court protect me.”
On Aug. 31, 2006, five months after the Colombs were found guilty, Melancon set aside the jury’s verdict — a move he calls “extremely unusual.”
“Had the facts ... been known to the jury when it began its deliberations ... some, and possibly all of the defendants would have been acquitted,” Melancon says in his ruling. “The defendants were adversely impacted and denied their basic right to a fair trial, not a perfect trial, but a fair trial.”
Melancon told the government he would allow prosecutors the chance to retry the case — but only after the government complied with his court order to investigate the practice of prison snitch testimony and report back on its impact on the criminal justice system.
Three and a half months later, the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to revisit the charges. Mary Ann Colomb and her sons were dismissed with prejudice.
When news of the Colomb family’s freedom made headlines in The Daily Advertiser, then U.S. Attorney Washington publicly reiterated the government’s stance, telling the daily “though we continue to believe these defendants were, in fact, trafficking drugs, we have decided not to pursue the case because of witness issues.”
That’s a stark contrast to Mary Ann Colomb’s account of what Washington told her in 2008 when she met him while with Bean at a town hall meeting in Bunkie. She confirms that Bean’s blog was accurate when he recalled the following conversation between Washington and Mary Ann Colomb:
“I’m sorry ma’am,” Washington says, “but you look awfully familiar. Have we met?”
“No, Mr. Washington,” Ann responds. “We haven’t met. I was the woman you put in jail for dealing drugs.”
“Oh, Mrs. Colomb,” he says. “I am so sorry about what happened to you and your family. And I want you to know that the men who lied about you and your sons are being punished to the full extent of the law.”
While not disputing the account, Washington now says his words to Mary Ann Colomb were more a courteous gesture than an apology. “I didn’t apologize for my office indicting her and her sons,” he says. “The United States decided not to re-pursue the case. We could have, but decided not to — for reasons that are not going to be publicly known for a long time.”
LESS THAN PERFECT
Washington says inmate Anderson, who failed to deliver on his paid-for promise to his former cell mate Quinn Alex, received additional prison time for his actions.
None of the witnesses who testified against the Colombs were ever punished for their alleged Colomb-Davis sharing scheme, though several of those witnesses were set to testify in another drug conspiracy case, U.S. v. Winters, which followed the Colomb-Davis sequence.
Melancon was presiding over that case, too, and told former Assistant U.S. Attorney Todd S. Clemons that the court needed some very specific information about the 20-40 inmates he planned to call. Before they could testify, Melancon first wanted to know what each of the inmates had been convicted of, where they had been imprisoned and when each of the inmates served time.
That list was never given to the judge because Clemons left the U.S. Attorney’s Office amid the case to pursue private practice. The conspiracy charges were eventually dismissed, but the defendants were later recharged and convicted. Bean, however, shared letters he obtained during the first Winters case that proved information-sharing in prison was still a popular way to shorten sentences.
“Honey, see if you can get Melba to get a picture of these people here,” says one letter from an unidentified federal prisoner that Bean received, in part thanks to the girlfriend of the prisoner who grew a conscience about helping to convict innocent people. “I hope she can do it with just they name ... send me their picture ASAP. That’s my free-flying tickets!!” The five names listed at the end of the inmate’s letter include Perry Leday, one of the men indicted in U.S. v. Winters.
In response to the court’s request for an investigation into snitch witnesses, Washington says he sent other prosecutors from the Western District to various prisons to study the issue. Their conclusion, he says, is that prosecutors under his watch were no longer going to rely solely on the testimony of inmates.
For Clemons, incarcerated witnesses exemplify one “inherent problem” in a federal criminal system that relies on convicts, most of whom are criminals by their own admission.
“Guidelines and criminal code dictate stiff sentences,” Clemons says. “To get that sentence reduced, they have to cooperate. The government has to be on guard. Especially in the drug cases, the entire system is designed for people to feel pressured to cooperate with the government.”
Despite the forged relationship between prosecutors and prisoners and the general assumption that a jury should be able to decipher the truth, Clemons says it’s still the duty of a federal prosecutor to perform due diligence in determining the veracity of their testimony.
“I would never call a witness that I didn’t believe was telling the truth,” Clemons says. “Prosecutors want to verify and need to verify that the information is credible.”
|Former U.S. Attorney Donald Washington|
WHY? ‘BECAUSE IT’S EASY’
Grayson’s tactics in Wyatt’s case and his use of snitch testimony in both the Colomb-Davis and Wyatt cases paint a dark portrait of the feds’ role here at home, one that, based on these two conspiracy indictments, has clouded the judicial process with questionable acts and tunnel vision in the name of justice.
Washington argues that it’s just not that simple. And it’s not. According to Eric Sterling, who served as legal adviser to the congressional committees that enacted extensive federal drug reform laws in the 1980s, the “tough on drugs” political game that erupted 25 years ago created haphazard statutes that have tripled the number of inmates in federal prisons nationwide. In an interview published on PBS’ website, Sterling says mandatory minimum sentence laws, which are based on the amount of drugs the government can prove was involved, were passed with the intention of putting away high-level drug traffickers, but the calculations were done with no input from judges, the bureau of prisons or the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The U.S. Supreme Court has since ruled that judges have a little leeway when it comes to mandatory minimums, but the federal Sentencing Guidelines are used as a foundation to determine the punishment. And as for “conspiracy,” Sterling says the word was added to the massive drug bill in another attempt to target big-time dealers by making “everyone in a conspiracy liable for every act of the conspiracy.”
“One result of the conspiracy amendment is that low-level traffickers can get very long sentences. They can also be the victims of lies by codefendants who have figured out how to cut a deal and manipulate the sentencing laws to their advantage,” Sterling says in the PBS interview. “High-level traffickers often get lower sentences than Congress anticipated. Only 10 percent of all the federal drug cases are high level traffickers ... You have drugless drug cases. You don’t need powder; all you need is the witness to say, ‘I saw a kilo.’ DEA agents and assistant U.S. attorneys are misusing the statute. They’re doing it because it’s easy. These are the easiest cases to prosecute. Families are wrecked. Children are orphaned. Taxpayers are paying a fortune.”
And while the case of Mike Wyatt — who faces a lengthy prison sentence for doing his life’s work — may just localize a nationwide need for criminal justice reform, Washington admits that if the accusations against Grayson in his prosecution of Wyatt are correct, it’s a problem.
“There are occasions when [a federal prosecutor] steps out of line and he has to be brought out,” Washington says. “Are they all perfect? No. Are most of them pretty damn good? You bet. Are most of them pretty damn fair? You bet. Brett’s personality is not always appreciated by the federal judiciary. As a result, there is sometimes a bit of acrimony that has to be attended to. When there were problems, appropriate steps were taken to remedy the problem. The sanctions are private. You’re not going to have any company standing on their steps saying we just fired Amy or Melinda or whoever, or we just sent her home for two weeks. Those don’t occur publicly unless there’s a reason or statute requiring that they do occur publicly.”
THE CIVIL SHIELD
The “acrimony” Grayson caused Mary Ann Colomb, who claims she was wrongfully and maliciously prosecuted by Grayson and the federal government, is outlined in a lawsuit she filed against the government in 2008. She’s seeking damages for the turmoil that ensued because of the federal charges and jail time, but a U.S. district court judge has already ruled that she can’t seek civil relief from Grayson.
As a federal prosecutor, an official of the court, Grayson has absolute immunity, a court precedent that protects federal prosecutors from civil suits to ensure their actions within the court are not done to protect themselves from monetary damages.
“Withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense, knowingly allowing perjured testimony, preparing to initiate a judicial proceeding, presenting evidence in support of a search warrant, and even introducing misleading evidence into a proceeding are all activities which fall squarely within the immunity,” says the court’s ruling that dismissed Grayson from the lawsuit.
Federal investigators, however, are only granted qualified immunity, and DEA Agent Jerry Stutes, as lead investigator of the Colomb-Davis case, has not been dismissed from the civil lawsuit. The case is pending.
A trial date has not been set for Mary Ann Colomb’s civil action. But the charges she faced for five years can never be brought on her again.
Meanwhile, back on Jefferson Street, Mike Wyatt spends almost every waking hour doing what he loves — customizing cars — despite a very uncertain future.
And B&M Auto Sound and 4x4, the business he has poured into for more than 10 years? The feds are trying to take that, too. If convicted, Wyatt’s business assets are up for grabs by the government, which by law is able to seize all property involved in drug crimes. The proceeds from federal asset seizures are divided among all the agencies that investigated the case, including local law enforcement.
It’s a “powerful incentive” for the feds to seize property, says Sterling, now the head of a criminal justice reform foundation. “Even in unmerited cases.”
For more local coverage on the civil side of wrongful federal prosecutions, check out The Independent’s web exclusive account of one man’s fight to regain more than $5 million dollars in lost income and legal fees for a federal environmental indictment that reads more like a soap opera than a criminal case.
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