By Alan Bean
I emailed Radley Balko a couple of months ago to fill him in on the sad conclusion to a story he has been following.
I encouraged Ann Colomb to pursue a suit against the men responsible for wrongfully convicting Ann and three of her sons. I knew the deck was stacked against her, but she needed to know she had done everything in her power to win a public acknowledgment of wrongdoing and some financial compensation for her suffering.
No mainstream attorney with standing in the legal community would take the case because these matters are handled on a contingency basis and the chances of winning were too small to justify the time and expense.
Radley Balko is the only journalist with national reach who has looked into this case. You have to understand the criminal justice system to handle the complexities of this case and few journalists do. Friends of Justice worked this case from 2004 through 2006 when Ann and her boys walked out of prison. That was the most satisfying moment I have experienced in fifteen years of advocacy work. Too bad the system intentionally shields wrongdoers from the consequences of their actions.
By Radley Balko
Back in 2008, I wrote a long piece for Reason magazine about the Colombs, a black, working class family in Church Point, Louisiana. The Colombs’ story goes back 15 years, and is pretty complex, but here are the highlights:
— The family says they had been routinely harassed for years by local law enforcement. This harassment seemed to begin when the light-skinned Colomb boys began dating white girls, including the daughter of a local deputy. The harassment included the boys and their white girlfriends regularly getting pulled over, and on several occasions arrested on charges that never stuck (except on one occasion).
— Church Point is largely segregated (in fact, if not in law), or at least it was when I wrote the story.
— At some point in the mid-2000s, the law enforcement run-ins with the Colomb boys turned into a federal drug investigation. The only actual drugs ever found that could be traced to the family were 72 grams of crack found during a SWAT raid. That crack was claimed by the boyfriend of Colomb’s husband’s daughter. He said it was his, and that the Colombs had no knowledge of it.
— Nevertheless, Assistant U.S. Attorney Grett Grayson pushed a federal drug conspiracy case against Ann Colomb and her sons. He was eventually able to line up more than 30 jailhouse snitches who were prepared to testify against the family — all in exchange for time off of their own sentences.
— The government’s case was absurd. If you were to add up all the crack the state’s witnesses claimed to have sold the family, the working class Colombs, who lived in a modest, one-story house with a backyard full of chickens, were buying $500,000 worth of cocaine per month for much of the 1990s. This, while the Colomb boys were attending high school.
— The jury convicted. The family was looking at decades in prison. Ann Colomb had a diabetic attack, and nearly died in jail.
— After the trial, it was revealed that someone had left a prosecutor’s file about the Colomb case in a local federal prison. Inmates had gotten hold of the file, and were selling one another information about the case. They would then write letters to the U.S. Attorney’s office offering to testify that they had sold drugs to the family.
— Federal Judge Tucker Melancon was so outraged he dismissed the charges against the family, and ordered an investigation. The results of that investigation have not been made public. Melancon also granted me an interview about the case, almost unheard of for a federal judge.
— Grayson went on to use some of the same informants in other cases, as have other federal prosecutors in Louisiana.
For the full details, read the entire article.
The update: I was recently informed by criminal justice reform activist Alan Bean, who has been an advocate for the family, that Ann Colomb has settled her lawsuit against local and federal government officials for $20,000. It’s a paltry sum that won’t even begin to cover the family’s legal bills. (The case quickly destroyed their life savings. The family was eventually represented by a mix of court-appointed and pro-bono attorneys.)
But frankly, it was probably about as much as they could hope for. Given the absolute prosecutorial immunity afforded to Grayson, and the sovereign and qualified immunity enjoyed by the sheriff’s department and its deputies, Colomb likely would never have gotten her case to a jury. She had a hard enough time just finding an attorney to take the case.
We’ve all read about the DNA exonerations that dramatically clear an inmate who has spent decades in prison for murder or rape. Even those cases don’t always result in the sort of compensation you’d think someone in that position would deserve. What happened to the Colombs is far less sexy, but it’s how such wrongful and excessive prosecutions are more typically resolved. There is no moment of redemption. The family will never be officially “exonerated.” (The settlement came with an insistence from government officials that they had done nothing wrong.) There will be no DNA test to establish the innocence of Ann Colomb and her sons. And because of that, they’ll never recoup most of what they spent on their defense, much less collect for mental anguish,lost wages, damage to their reputations, and their wrongful incarceration.
The public officials who pursued them will face no discipline. And there will be no changes to the policies that allowed it all to happen.