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May 11, 2005 - Dallas Morning News(TX)

Editorial: After The Scandal: Report Calls For Changes In Culture, Policy

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After four years, the facts have grown as uncomfortably familiar as that hard, old shoe that never fit, always pinching around the instep and rubbing blisters:

Mounds of "drugs," some from unusually massive busts, turned out to be little more than billiards chalk. Corrupt police informants made a handsome living off the scam. Three Dallas officers face indictment for their roles; one, Mark Delapaz, was convicted in state court after a federal acquittal.

Worse, dozens of innocent Mexican immigrants went to jail. Did Dallas County District Attorney Bill Hill and his prosecutors intentionally cause that? The answer is no, according to a report reviewing their role released this week by deputy special prosecutor Jack Zimmerman. Here are some conclusions we draw from this case and report:

What Mr. Hill Did Wrong

Allowed "inexcusable neglect" to develop among overworked prosecutors. Venita Budhrani White filed a lab report without reading it; if she had, she would have seen that the "drugs" seized were not drugs.

Was lax in disciplining key players. Ms. White was later promoted. The top two drug court supervisors, George West and Gregg Long, did not "connect the dots" of the emerging scandal in late 2001, according to the Zimmerman report. Mr. Hill transferred them to other positions, but didn't say why.

Questioned, on national TV as the scandal was unfolding, the innocence of some of the arrested immigrants, fueling anger and deepening wounds. He later expressed regret, but damage was done.

What Mr. Hill Did Right

In January 2002, instituted a mandatory rotation policy for drug prosecutors to guard against a too cozy culture between the lawyers and the cops.

Changed his office's policy to require lab tests on all seized drugs before indictment.

To prevent another scandal from festering in isolation, assigned a central prosecutor and an assistant to review lab reports and track trends.

After Mr. Delapaz's acquittal in December 2003, appointed special prosecutor Dan Hagood, who hired Mr. Zimmerman, a Houston lawyer. Critics have questioned their "independence," but Mr. Hill's office did not escape unscathed in this report.

Lessons Going Forward

Prosecutors - including the district attorney - must take seriously all allegations of error or wrongdoing and act swiftly and prudently to determine what went wrong. Disciplinary action should be unambiguous.

Acknowledgement of error and the plans to remedy it must be communicated clearly, immediately and openly.

If nothing else, the Zimmerman report shows how everyday prosecutions can go terribly wrong if the right people aren't asking the right questions.

Read the entire report and view an interactive timeline of the scandal

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