When I left the federal courthouse in Lafayette at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, the lawyers were still hammering out language for the judge's charge to the jury. For all I know they are still at it.
With the jurors, spectators, court employees and defendants out of the room, Judge Tucker Melancon stripped off his snappy blue robe and rolled up his sleeves.
"I would like to ask the gentleman at the back of the room to identify himself," he said. The judge had been laboring under the mistaken impression that I was an expert of some kind.
"My name is Alan Bean, and I'm with a criminal justice reform group called Friends of Justice," I said.
"Are you a lawyer?" Melancon asked.
"No your honor," I said, "I'm an observer."
"But you've seen a lot of trials, I suppose."
"Yes, your honor."
"So what do you think of me--I mean, frankly? This morning Mr. Grayson implied that I have a pro-defense bias -- do you think that's right?"
I told the judge he was the most fair and flexible judge I have ever been exposed to, and I meant it.
Judge Melancon and US Attorney Brett Grayson had been sparring all day. The tone was jovial, but the friction is genuine. When Grayson endorsed a scrap of testimony from a snitch named Stevie Charlot, Melancon had to respond.
"While it is not proper for the court to evaluate the credibility of witnesses," he said, "I certainly have a strong opinion about what I heard and what the jury heard!"
The unspoken message was clear: "Mr. Grayson -- why have you built a federal case on the back of witnesses so utterly bereft of credibility?"
A bit later, the Judge grew bolder still. "It is not my responsibility to tell a US Attorney who to prosecute or how to do it, but . . ." Then after a brief pause he muttered, "Well, I best leave the rest unsaid."
The defense attorneys have asked me to write up a few observations on the trial to assist them in their closing statements.
My experience in Tulia, Texas has left me with strong opinions on this subject. If I weren't in Lafayette I would be finishing up the final chapter of my magnum opus on the notorious Tulia drug sting. In Tulia, eight juries convicted defendants on the uncorroborated word of a gypsy cop who had left a world of hurt in his wake.
I have spent the past six years wondering why jurors trusted this guy. And why so many cops, judges, and prosecutors went along for the ride? It makes me worry about the Colombs. The fact that I think the government's case is appallingly weak does not mean the jury will see it that way.
I told the defense attorneys that they should agree that this is a conspiracy case, just not the kind of conspiracy alleged in the indictment. The prosecution of the Colomb family has been shaped and driven by a conspiracy of snitches.
Jurors want to believe cops and US attorneys -- especially men like Mr. Grayson who has dedicated their lives to a holy war on drugs. Secondly, juries like to see themselves as the good guys. They want to leave the courtroom believing that two weeks of drudgery in the jury box will leave the world a better place. They sure don't want to help a bunch of drug dealers "get off on a technicality."
The only way to work these traits to the advantage of the defense is to assert that the government's witnesses were either part of a snitch conspiracy or victims of that conspiracy.
The cops and prosecutors who brought this case to court are well-intentioned people, but they have been scammed by snitches like Dexter Harmon (the man who first named the Colombs as drug kingpins) and little Stevie Charlot (the crack addict turned snitch who has changed his story more times than O. Henry).
It isn't enough, I told the defense attorneys, to argue that the government has failed to meet its burden; there needs to be a compelling explanation for the fact that so many inmates are telling the same story about the Colombs AND why so many public officials seem to believe them.
It ain't the whole truth; but it ain't no lie neither. Incarcerated drug dealers are currently running the federal version of the war on drugs with the complicity of true-believers like US Attorney Brett Grayson. Once more I invite the local and regional media to be on hand when the verdict comes down, hopefully tomorrow.
And those of you who pray, please remember the Colomb family. They are holding up bravely, but the terror is palpable. I should have some big news for you tomorrow--hopefully.
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