Reporter uncovers a judicial scandal in Louisiana

20110720-cover-0101By Alan Bean

This in-depth story in the Lafayette Independent, places the spotlight on “a choir of convicts contaminating the judicial process in exchange for a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card.”  Specifically, it is about an assistant US Attorney named Brett Grayson, a man who believes anything he hears from an informant so long as it helps him build a case. 

This kind of reporting is exceedingly rare.  You will rarely find a story this detailed and well-researched in the mainstream press.  Stories like this don’t pay (the average reader isn’t interested in the federal justice system) and they irritate people in high places.

I am biased, of course.  You will find information in “Convicted” that I have been trying to feed to the media for years; in particular, the case of Ann Colomb of Church Point, LA, and three of her sons.

Among journalists, only Radley Balko, formerly editor of Reason Magazine, has shown much interest in the Colomb.    In the scholarly world, Alexandra Natapoff, the nation’s foremost authority on the use and abuse of confidential informants, uses the Colomb story as exhibit A when she talks about snitching in the federal system:

Federal law even has a special provision for jailhouse snitches. Rule 35 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure offers sentence reductions to incarcerated offenders who provide information after they have started serving their sentences, a rule that Tucker Melancon, a U.S. district judge in Louisiana, has criticized as an invitation to fabrication. This rule created the conditions for the wrongful convictions of Ann Colomb and her three sons, Louisiana defendants who were found guilty of drug dealing in 2006 based on false information concocted by dozens of federal inmates trying to reduce their own sentences.

Balko and Natapoff know enough about the abuse of snitching in the federal justice system to be deeply concerned about people like Ann Colomb.  Tragically, few share this concern.

Which makes ‘Convicted’, an investigative tour de force from the Independents’ Heather Miller, a precious repository of information.  If you are a regular reader of this blog, some of the information will be familiar, but Miller has advanced the ball considerably.  When she read about a poignant encounter between Ann Colomb and Donald Washington, she called the former US Attorney and asked for a comment.

Brett Grayson, the AUSA who takes most of the heat in ‘Convicted’, refused comment.

“Convicted’ revolves around three stories: Mike Wyatt, a master mechanic who may do a decade in federal prison on the uncorroborated word of one of Grayson’s snitches; Ann Colomb and her sons, who were exonerated when a would-be snitch blew the whistle on perjury parties (my expression) in the federal prison system; and a parallel case in which a girlfriend with a healthy conscience revealed letters from one of Grayson’s prospective snitches in which the mechanics of lying to a laughably eager federal prosecutor are explained in detail.  Miller has carefully verified all accusations and demonstrates a solid command of the complex legal materials at the heart of these stories.

Maybe that’s why we see few stories this good–they take weeks to research and write.  Few working journalists have that luxury.  A few magazines (the New Yorker and Atlantic come to mind) will print in-depth investigative pieces, but few reporters subject the self-congratulatory blathering of prosecutors to serious scrutiny.

Enjoy

Convicted

How the federal justice system incentivizes questionable and often unreliable witnesses, including jailhouse snitches, to prosecute the War on Drugs

By Heather Miller

“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 4×4 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.

The rest of the story can be found here.

2 thoughts on “Reporter uncovers a judicial scandal in Louisiana

  1. Being new to this area, after reading this article, and needing repairs to my auto sound system, I decided to stop at B&M Auto Sound. I arrived before the shop opened, but as Mr. Wyatt was arriving. I was totally impressed with this young man, the way he explained everything to me and how he ultimately resolved my problem. He was fair though he could have taken advantage of my lack of knowledge. My gut instinct tells me there is no way this man couldhave done what he is accused of. For the U.S. Attorney to do what they are doing is a travesty. I trust the jury will see it as I do.

  2. The federal prosecutors have basically been given carte blanche by Congress to not only run rough-shod over citizens’ constitutional rights, but also, to ignore all reports and/or opinions provided by its own experts and fellow officers in the Pre-Trial Services Division. When it comes to the availability of the Pre-Trial Diversion Program, US Attorneys are subjected to absolutely no oversight, and Congress had made it impossible for a defendant to be granted a hearing to overturn a decision made by the US Attorney, regardless of what his own medical experts and associates have recommended. I believe this is primarily due to the current philosophy of the US Attorney’s Office of getting a conviction by any means necessary. We saw in the 80’s Congress passing legislation to limit the discretion previously afforded the Judiciary to the point now where a federal judge is basically powerless to challenge or change any decision made by the US Attorney turning the process on its ear.

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