Guilty Before Proven Innocent
How police harassment, jailhouse snitches, and a runaway war on drugs imprisoned an innocent family
Ann Colomb scoops a plastic cup of corn from a white pail in her backyard and pours it onto the sod at her feet. A few dozen scraggly chickens scatter as the corn hits the ground, then gather back into a flock to peck up the kernels.
"Grocery chickens are so expensive," the 57-year-old Colomb explains. "And they're pumped up with all those hormones. So we raise and butcher them ourselves." Inside, a less lucky bird stews with gravy and spices in a pot on Colomb's stove. As she frequently does, Colomb is entertaining guests. She'll ladle the chicken and gravy over rice for visiting family members, along with a selection of the peppery, butter-laden sides—a mix of Creole cuisine and soul food.
It's early July in Church Point, Louisiana, and the summer's bearing down. In front of the Colombs' modest, two-bedroom bungalow, a large rattletrap fan blows sluggish swamp air across the porch. An unused freezer, an old toaster oven, and a rickety covered swing sit under the driveway carport. Colomb's husband, James, sits on a lawn chair and dabs the humidity from his face with a handkerchief.
The Colombs live on a mostly black street in a mostly white section of this mostly segregated town of 4,700 in Acadia Parish—the heart of Cajun country. James Colomb spent the bulk of his career working in an oil field, then was injured. The family's sole source of income now is his disability check. Ann Colomb—"Miss Ann" to those who know her—is a homemaker.
It was from this unlikely setting, the United States alleged, that Ann Colomb and three of her four sons ran one of the largest crack cocaine operations in Louisiana. Over the course of a decade, prosecutors said, the Colombs bought $15 million in illicit drugs with a street value of more than $70 million. Judging solely from the indictments, the government's case seemed formidable: a trail of police reports throughout the 1990s accusing the Colomb boys of possessing or selling drugs; a 2001 raid on the Colomb home that turned up 72 grams of crack, a Titan .25-caliber pistol, and a rifle; and more than 30 prison informants who were prepared to testify that they had sold crack to one or more members of the Colomb family. In 2006 a jury in Lafayette, Louisiana, convicted the African-American family on federal drug conspiracy charges. Ann and her sons served almost four months in a federal prison while awaiting their sentences, which would likely have ranged from 10 years to life.
But in the ensuing months, the government's case unraveled, exposing some unsettling truths about the way jailhouse informants are used in America's courtrooms. In December 2006, all charges against the family were dismissed. The federal judge who presided over the trial was so upset about what happened in his courtroom that he has since taken the rare step of speaking out about it publicly.
The legal fiasco was partly attributable to familiar themes of racism and overly aggressive prosecution. But
the Colomb story is mostly about the war on drugs. It shows how the absurd incentives created by the unaccountable use of shady drug informants by police and prosecutors can quickly make innocent people look very guilty.
The case loomed over the family for more than five years. It wrecked their finances. The Colombs' son Danny was convicted shortly after learning that his wife Elizabeth was expecting their first child. He spiraled into severe depression while incarcerated. He and Elizabeth say they spent their entire savings on attorney's fees. Ann Colomb had a serious diabetic attack in prison. She too spent her savings on her defense.
Still, the Colombs' home on Broadway Street is a happier place now, bustling with visiting neighbors and relatives. Ann forges a path through the doddering chickens and makes her way to the front of the house. She sits down in a lawn chair next to her husband and lifts her 3-year-old granddaughter Mariah into her lap. "It's good now," she says as she strokes the little girl's braids. "I'm finally getting to enjoy my grandbabies."
Ten Years, Four Incidents, One Conviction
Ann Colomb and three of her four sons were indicted, charged, and convicted on federal drug conspiracy charges. The conspiracy indictment allowed the government to piece together a series of disparate events going back more than a decade, only one of which had ever amounted to a conviction in state court.
The indictment lists four "overt acts" over 10 years that prosecutors say indicate a conspiracy. The cumulative amount of cocaine police said was involved in the four incidents amounts to less than a gram. All four incidents also involved deputies from the Acadia Parish Sheriff's Department, whom the Colombs accuse of harboring a racially motivated grudge against the family, driven in part by the Colomb boys' history of dating white women. (The Sheriff's Department declined to comment for this story.)
The only act listed in the federal indictment that resulted in a conviction at the time came in 1993, when a sheriff's deputy pulled over a car occupied by Ann Colomb's son from a previous marriage, Sammie Davis Jr., who was 26 at the time; Ann and James Colomb's son Edward Colomb, then 20; and two other men. A subsequent search found cocaine and marijuana on the other two men and some residue in the car but none on Davis or Colomb. Sammie and Edward were nevertheless arrested and charged with drug possession. Ann and James Colomb say their attorney told Sammie and Edward that if they fought the charges, they would almost certainly be convicted and sent to prison. The two pleaded no contest to a felony possession charge and were sentenced to probation.
"We didn't know anything about how all of this worked," Ann Colomb says. "We'd never been in a court before. I didn't know the first thing about drugs or the law." The repercussions of that plea would hang over the family for 15 years.
In the other three incidents federal prosecutors claimed were part of the drug conspiracy, state charges were dropped before getting to trial. In one, an undercover police officer alleged that in December 1999 he met Sammie Davis Jr. under the Colomb home's carport to purchase cocaine. Years later, at the federal trial, the man who built the carport testified that it had not existed in December 1999. It wouldn't be built for another year.
An assistant to Acadia Parish Sheriff Wayne Melancon referred inquiries to Jerry Stutes, a federal investigator who worked for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Louisiana in the federal case against the Colombs. (Stutes has also worked for the Acadia Parish Sheriff's Department.) Stutes declined to comment, referring inquiries to the Public Information Office of the Drug Enforcement Administration's New Orleans field office. That office referred inquiries to the U.S. Attorney's Office, which did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
A Divided Town
In 1981 Ann and James Colomb moved their family to Church Point from nearby Carencro, Louisiana.
The family included Sammie Davis Jr. (named for the Rat Pack crooner), now 40, and the four children the couple had together: Edward, now 34; Danny, 33; Randy, 32; and Jennifer, 27. Because Ann and her first husband didn't finalize their divorce until years after their separation, the surnames of the children can be confusing: Although only Sammie was the product of Ann's previous marriage, both he and Danny take the last name Davis, while Edward and Randy take the last name Colomb. Jennifer, now married, takes the last name of her husband, Timothy Price.
Church Point has a history of racial unrest. Even today, black residents say, much of the town is segregated, by custom and practice if not by law. There are two versions of Church Point's annual Mardi Gras parade, one for whites and one for blacks. (Church Point Mayor Roger Boudreaux insists that "anyone is free to take part in either the white or black parade.") There are separate white and black Catholic churches, cemeteries, and, for the most part, neighborhoods. Blacks in Church Point say they aren't permitted at the town's only swimming pool. Mayor Boudreaux says the only pool in town requires a private membership but couldn't say if there were any black members.
In 1994 fighting broke out in the stands of a Church Point High School football game when Margeaux Coleman was announced as the school's first black homecoming queen. Coleman at the time was dating Randy Colomb, Ann's fourth son. Months later, former Ku Klux Klan leader and white supremacist David Duke took part in the town's white Mardi Gras parade. Black Church Point residents say town officials invited Duke in direct response to the homecoming scandal. Boudreaux says Duke showed up on his own initiative.
Rodney and Lois Carrier grew up in Church Point but today live in Carencro. The Carriers, both white, say they not only witnessed Church Point's racial bias over the years; they participated in it.
"It's still a different time in Church Point," Lois Carrier says. She's sitting in front of her kitchen window, where, sitting on the sill, there is a collection of black minstrel figurines. "There are still a lot of people there who don't accept blacks into their homes," she says. "Black people and white people live in different parts of town. Walk on different sides of the street. We were like that too. I'm ashamed of it now. But yes, we were racist people."
All of that changed in 1997, the Carriers say, when their daughter Elizabeth began dating a black man—Ann Colomb's son, Danny. "We weren't happy when we heard Elizabeth was dating a black guy," Rodney says. "We didn't even want to meet him."
In fact, it took months for the Carriers to agree to meet Danny. "But once we did, we fell in love with him," Lois says. Danny obtained his Catholic confirmation, and began attending Bible study at the Carriers' church. "Danny healed us from our prejudiced way of thinking," Lois Carrier says. "We could finally see past his color, to his heart." Rodney Carrier's eyes well up when he speaks of Danny. "Today, I wouldn't want anyone but Danny for Elizabeth," he says.
What Danny and his family went through in court also changed the Carriers' way of thinking. "We were raised to trust the authorities, to have a certain fear of them," Lois says. "Now, it's like we've lost a lot of that trust. It's almost a scary feeling, not to be able to trust the people you're supposed to. What that family went through.…And watching them do Danny the way they did.…"
Elizabeth Carrier says she regularly did battle with Acadia sheriff's deputies in the late 1990s. "I was pulled over all the time," she says. "Whenever I left Ann's house, they'd ask 'What are you doing with those Colomb boys?' or 'Why are you here?'?" She says the police also would ask her whom she was dating and, when she told them, ask to search her car for drugs. Eventually, she says, she stopped going to the Colombs and instead asked Danny to visit her house.
Brandy Hanks, 30, is a white woman who dated Danny Davis during and shortly after high school. "I was pulled over just about every time I left Miss Ann's house," Hanks says. "They'd ask me, 'Why are you hanging out with those niggers, those drug dealers?' Or they'd ask, 'What's someone like you doing over at the Colomb house?' And they'd always ask who I was dating."
It wasn't just law enforcement. Hanks says the Ku Klux Klan once left a card on her windshield with threats about interracial dating. "People don't know what it was like—what we went through," Ann Colomb says. "You don't know what it's like to get a phone call in the middle of the night from somebody, saying if my boy Edward don't stop dating white girls, I'm going to find him hanging from a tree."
Colomb wipes a tear into her cheek, then grows defiant. "I told him to leave a branch open for me, because if he killed my boy, I was going to string his white ass up right alongside," she says. "Then I disconnected our phone."
By the mid 1990s, the Colomb boys say they were regularly getting pulled over. "We couldn't drive anywhere in town without getting stopped," says Edward. "They would pull you over, ask to search your car, make a big deal out of it. Sometimes they'd let you go, sometimes they'd take you in and try to get you to plead to something you didn't do."
"I've battled depression for 15 years because of all this," Danny says. "I couldn't leave my house without getting harassed. I still take Lexapro and blood pressure medication. I don't think I was paranoid when I thought they were going to kill me. I had police try to run me off the road. Other times, it was petty stuff, just to mess with you. One deputy pulled me over and took my license from me for no reason. He never gave it back."
In February 1996, local authorities claim to have witnessed Danny Davis participate in a hand-to-hand drug deal in a Church Point parking lot. That evening, a police team clad in camouflage, black ski masks, and full SWAT attire stormed the home of Brandy Hanks' parents, where Danny and Brandy were staying. The police broke the family's door open with a battering ram just as Hanks' partially paralyzed mother approached to open it. She was thrown over the back of her couch, triggering a cardiac event that put her in the hospital. The police roused Danny from sleep at gunpoint, handcuffed him, and marched him outside the house, where newspaper photographers and television crews waited with cameras to capture the fallen football star in shackles.
"They pointed their guns at a two-week-old baby," Hanks says. "My little sister was so scared she peed herself."
The police found no drugs, weapons, or anything incriminating in the raid. But Danny Davis says they still attempted to get him to plead to a drug charge for a transaction he says never happened. He refused and was never charged. Davis would be hauled into the police station two more times and pressured by local authorities to plead guilty. He refused both times, and both times the charges were dropped.
It was from these multiple run-ins with local authorities throughout the 1990s that the U.S. Attorney's Office plucked the four incidents included in the federal conspiracy indictment against the family. These incidents—plus a questionable sting on Ann Colomb's house in October 2001 that turned up two guns and 72 grams of crack—were the only evidence presented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Brett Grayson that the Colomb family ever sold any illicit drugs. The rest of the testimony came from jailhouse informants accusing the Colombs only of buying cocaine, and lots of it.
"They took a bunch of unrelated police harassments of these people over 10 years, coupled it with a parade of jailhouse snitches, and called it a conspiracy," says Rodney Baum, Sammie's lawyer. "It was ridiculous."
On October 22, 2001, a local drug task force claimed to have conducted a "controlled buy" of crack cocaine from Ann Colomb. According to police reports, Stevie Charlot, a local crack addict who once toured the world as drummer for a zydeco band, was recruited to conduct the buy. Although police say Charlot wore a wire to record the transaction, they didn't preserve any recording of it.
In the years between the alleged buy in 2001 and the Colomb trial in 2006, Charlot changed his story several times. In 2002 he told a private investigator hired by Colomb's defense lawyers (in a recorded conversation) that the buy never happened at all, that he'd made the entire thing up to appease law enforcement officials. Charlot himself was facing a host of drug charges at the time. But Charlot soon was back to his original story, telling the grand jury that "everyone in Church Point dealt with the Colombs," though he couldn't provide authorities with the name of a single Colomb drug customer other than himself.
Minutes after Charlot's alleged drug buy, the local drug task force raided the Colomb home in full SWAT attire, taking down the unlocked front door with a battering ram. They handcuffed Ann Colomb at gunpoint and rummaged through her belongings. James Colomb had to be taken to the hospital with a panic attack and heart palpitations. In a guest room dresser (not Ann Colomb's panty drawer, where Charlot allegedly told police the drugs were stored), police found 72 grams of crack cocaine, not in rock form, as Charlot alleged, but in round, uncut "cookies," along with a handgun. The amount of cocaine was significant; a typical "hit" of two to three rocks weighs only a fraction of a gram.
At the time, Ann and James Colomb's daughter, Jennifer, was staying in the guest room with her then-boyfriend (now husband) Timothy Price. Price, now 26, immediately said the drugs and gun were his. He still does. "I was dealing crack on the side," Price says. "It wasn't anything major. And it was stupid. But that stuff was all mine. After we took Jennifer's dad to the hospital, I heard that they had taken Miss Ann to jail. I can't tell you how bad I felt. Miss Ann wouldn't allow a single joint in that house. And because of me, they were trying to say she was some kind of drug dealer."
Price drove to the police station to turn himself in. "I told them the dope and the gun was mine," he says. "My mom is a police officer. The gun was hers."
But Price says the sheriff's deputies wanted nothing to do with him. "When I told them it was all mine, they put me in a holding cell for about 15 minutes," he recalls. "Then they came and told me to go home. They said, 'The dope's not yours. Tell Edward to come get his momma.' After that, I didn't really know what to do."
Several months later, Price says, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brett Grayson sent him a letter asking him to come in for questioning. By that time, police had traced the gun found with the cocaine to Price's mother. Nevertheless, Price says, "Mr. Grayson was surprised when I told him the dope was mine." Grayson and U.S. Attorney Donald Washington did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
Later, Price says, Grayson tried to convince him to say his girlfriend, Jennifer, had cajoled him into taking a fall for the drugs. When Grayson threatened Price with 10 to 15 years in prison if he continued to claim the cocaine as his own, Price says he decided to get an attorney. When later called before the grand jury, Price acknowledged the gun was his, but on the advice of his lawyer he pled the Fifth Amendment when asked about the drugs.
Today Price says the drugs definitely were his, just as he did immediately after the raid. "I lost a lot of friends and relatives over all of this," he says. "People looked at me like I was a ghost." Price was never charged for the cocaine. Five years later, Ann Colomb would take the hit for the cocaine in federal court. Although Price and Jennifer are now married, the Colomb family still hasn't completely forgiven him. Normally warm, Ann Colomb cools at the mention of Price's name. Her sons Edward and Sammie roll their eyes when asked about him. But all seem to hold back their disdain now that he's family.
"He did what he had to do," Edward says, referring to Price pleading the Fifth. "The drugs were his and he tried to take credit for them. I guess you can't blame a guy for not wanting to go to jail."
"He brought drugs into my home," Ann says. "We can move on from that. Timmy's going to have to live with what he done. That's probably enough punishment for him."
Although the raid was a local police operation, its results soon attracted the attention of Assistant U.S. Attorney Grayson. With the aid of more than 30 jailhouse informants, he would grow it into a major federal drug conspiracy case. The first federal indictment against the Colombs came down in May 2002. Subsequent indictments continued through 2004. The final indictment sought to seize Ann and James Colomb's home.
One other charge resulted from the raid. When the police came in, they say they found Sammie Davis in a room where an unloaded shotgun was stored in a closet. A police officer at the scene says Davis immediately admitted to him that the gun belonged to him. Davis denies this, explaining that he didn't even live in the house at the time. (All of Ann's sons had moved out by then.) Although there was nothing illegal about the gun itself, Davis was a convicted felon, the result of his no-contest plea in the 1993 incident. He'd later be convicted in a separate trial of being a felon in possession of a firearm. The Colomb family's lawyers believe that news of Sammie's conviction spread through the federal prison system, inspiring a second wave of jailhouse informants to come to Grayson with new allegations of selling drugs to the Colomb family.
The Government Builds Its Case
Brett Grayson had made a name for himself by bringing down the drug empire of Houston kingpin John Timothy Cotton between 2000 and 2004. But after Cotton's conviction, defense attorneys alleged that Grayson had relied on improper jailhouse snitch testimony, testimony they say ranged from inconsistent to provably false. One attorney alleged he had proof that a network of federal prison inmates called the "Hot Boyz" were trading and selling information about pending drug cases, including notes from the prosecutors, photos of the suspects, and even grand jury testimony.
But Grayson had collected boxes and boxes of other evidence against Cotton and his associates, so any problems with the snitch testimony, courts later ruled, were "harmless error"—not enough to overturn any convictions. Still, the testimony coming from the inmates at the federal penitentiary in Beaumont, Texas, known as Beaumont Low, troubled U.S. District Court Judge Tucker Melancon (no relation to the Acadia Parish sheriff), who would develop similar misgivings about the jailhouse witnesses Grayson called to the stand to testify against the Colomb family.
It is rare for a sitting federal judge to agree to an interview about one of his cases. Melancon says he can't remember ever previously speaking with a journalist about the events in his courtroom. But this case bothered him. "I saw some of these [informants] in previous cases," Melancon says. "It was like revolving-door inmate testimony. The allegation was that there was in the federal justice system a network of folks who were trying to get relief from long sentences by ginning up information on folks being tried in drug cases. I'd heard about it before. But it all culminated in the Colomb trial."
By the end of 2002, Grayson had found 16 prison informants to testify against the Colombs. According to post-trial motions, Grayson says the informants came to him voluntarily, without solicitation. During the trial, Grayson argued that the informants were credible witnesses because it wasn't necessarily in their interest to testify. Snitches, Grayson argued, aren't treated well in prison.
But Grayson's witnesses had clearly benefited from their testimony when he'd used them in the past, in the form of reduced sentences. One career criminal, Reginald Milstead, had testified for Grayson in a prior case in addition to the Colomb case and in exchange had his life sentence cut down to 10 years—of which he'd already served seven. Another of Grayson's witnesses had a life sentence reduced to 15 years, according to defense briefs filed after the Colombs' conviction.
Between June and September 2004, a second wave of inmates sent Grayson letters asking to testify against the Colombs. It began shortly after Sammie Davis was convicted on the gun charge. Grayson signed up an additional 16 witnesses. "Grayson's home phone number must have been written all over the walls at Beaumont Low," quips Steve Shapiro, Edward Colomb's trial lawyer. "He had that whole prison jumping to tell him whatever he wanted to hear."
Still bothered by what he'd seen at the Cotton trial, Judge Melancon initially attempted to bar Grayson from calling the additional 16 witnesses against Colomb, citing worries that in the years between the Colomb indictments and the trial bad information might have been "trickling" through the prison system and tainting the "search for the truth" that is supposed to be the objective of a criminal trial. But Grayson filed an interlocutory appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which vacated Melancon's ruling. Melancon was able to exclude just one of the additional witnesses, leaving Grayson with 31 prison informants ready to testify against the Colombs.
The Shady World of Informants
The use of dubious informants is standard practice in drug policing. Narcotics officers routinely recruit drug addicts, rival dealers, and arrestees already facing their own drug charges to make controlled buys from suspected drug dealers or to point out places where drugs might be found. The system is fraught with problems, including a lack of oversight, little accountability, and twisted incentives that encourage shortcuts and corruption.
But even within the already tawdry informant system, jailhouse informants occupy a particularly pernicious niche. Mandatory minimum sentences contribute to the corruption of jailhouse informant testimony. Under federal law, the only way someone serving a mandatory minimum prison sentence can get out early is to provide information or testimony that is of "substantial assistance" to prosecutors. What constitutes "substantial assistance" is solely up to the judgment of prosecutors. Make the prosecutor happy, and you go home early. Tell him something that may well be true but doesn't quite go far enough to win him an indictment or conviction, and you risk giving up a golden opportunity to cut your time. Critics say it's a system that suborns outright lying.
"Some of these people would fry their own mother to get out of a 25-year drug sentence," says Judge Melancon. "You're going against human nature. And you've put in a system that lets human nature run amok, that lets information be passed from inmate to inmate, for pay or otherwise. This is something we need to take very, very seriously."
The problem isn't new. In 1990 jailhouse informant Leslie Vernon White, an admitted perjurer, showed a 60 Minutes reporter how, even while in prison, he was able to obtain confidential information about pending prosecutions, then fabricate an incriminating story about a suspect and offer it up to prosecutors in exchange for a reduction in his sentence. Despite doubts about his credibility dating back to the late 1970s, prosecutors continued to put White on the stand until the late 1980s. After much publicity, he was finally indicted for perjury in 1992. White had given a similar interview to Time in 1988, prompting the Los Angeles district attorney to conduct a review that turned
up more than 100 cases potentially tainted by informant testimony. The defense bar later came up with more than 200 more.
In a 2005 report on 111 death row exonerations between 1973 and 2004, the Northwestern University School of Law's Center on Wrongful Convictions found that 51 involved false testimony from jailhouse informants looking to cut their time. But such studies are rare, in part because of a lack of information.
"We just don't know," says Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at the Loyola School of Law in Los Angeles and a leading expert on the use of informants. "The problem is that we don't require the government to keep track of how informants are used. Where there have been thorough reviews by journalists—in Chicago, for example—we've seen common and persistent abuses. It's bad enough at the federal level. But we really have no idea at all what goes on at the state and local level."
Judge Melancon says informant abuse at the federal level was made even worse by amendments to the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. Broadly speaking, a convicted felon has one year from the date of his sentencing to remember everything he can—to tell the government everything he knows about other criminal activity in exchange for a reduction in his sentence. But amendments passed in 1991, 2002, and 2004 added several exceptions to that rule.
The most problematic of these allows a prisoner to get time off in exchange for information he relays to prosecutors well after the one-year cutoff, if prosecutors believe the prisoner wasn't aware that the information would have been valuable to them before. Critics say the exception is too vague and too easily manipulated. Prison inmates can now spend the entirety of their sentences monitoring the news and rumor mills for drug prosecutions involving people or places with which they're even vaguely familiar, then write to prosecutors to offer up information with just enough knowledge of a given town or suspect to appear believable.
"It's wide open now," Melancon says. "Everybody in the federal prisons knows what's going on outside. You've got these people with extremely long drug sentences who hear about a drug case in a town they're familiar with. Now they realize they can tell the government things that happened years ago—true or not—and get time off their sentences."
Judge James Gray, a drug war critic who sits on the Superior Court of Orange County, California, and also has served as an assistant U.S. attorney, says courts need to give more scrutiny to snitch testimony, and prosecutors need to verify it. "This is a game," Gray says. "You have lots of people sitting in prison who will do virtually anything to get out. They'll sell you out in a minute to get out of there. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain. And every guy that guy gives up is going to get his own mandatory minimum sentence. And he then becomes another source of potentially bad information for prosecutors. You can quickly rack up a lot of convictions. But it shouldn't be surprising if, in the process, you create some cottage industries."
Because there was no appeal, there are no transcripts of the Colomb trial. The account here has been culled from post-trial briefs and rulings as well as interviews with the Colombs, their attorneys, Judge Melancon, and others who sat through the proceedings.
The Colomb trial began on March 20, 2006, with a jury of 11 whites and one Latino woman. There was one black alternate juror. Once Grayson had laid out the four incidents from the 1990s and the details of the 2001 raid, he brought his prison informants into court, one after another, each claiming to have sold enormous quantities of crack and powder cocaine to the Colombs. Most said the transactions took place in public, yet Grayson had no surveillance video, audio recordings, or witnesses to these transactions other than the informants themselves.
Judging from the informant testimony, Edward and Danny Colomb would have been buying some $500,000 worth of wholesale crack cocaine a month in 1994, while both were still in high school. The government alleged that Danny and Edward alone bought more than $15 million in cocaine between 1993 and 1999. Grayson offered no witnesses who bought any of that cocaine, nor did he produce any drugs or money, other than the 72 grams seized in the October 2001 raid.
The Colombs' lawyers called witnesses who testified to various hard-labor jobs the Colomb boys held during the entire period under question. From 1995 to 1999—the height of the alleged conspiracy—Danny and Edward both took full-time jobs right out of high school doing backbreaking work for a cement contractor in Kaplan, Louisiana. From 1999 through 2000, Danny woke at 3 a.m. and worked until noon five days a week collecting garbage. From 1998 to 2000, while working both these jobs, Danny was also taking night classes at Remington College, where he earned an associate degree in electronics. From 2000 to 2005, he worked full time repairing office machines.
Grayson argued at the trial that he didn't need to show how or where the Colombs got the money to buy all of that cocaine, or what they did with the money after they'd sold it. During his questioning of witnesses and in his oral arguments, he countered defense evidence of the Colombs' modest lifestyle by pointing out that drug dealers are frequently robbed of their cash and tend to be deft at hiding and laundering money.
The trial lasted just under two weeks. The jury deliberated for five hours, then came back with its verdict: Edward, Danny, Sammie, and Ann were all guilty of running a drug conspiracy. (Sammie was acquitted on two related charges.) The four were taken into custody, then to a holding prison to await sentencing.
Ann Colomb didn't do well in prison. "I have diabetes," she says. "And I couldn't treat it right in prison. So when I had an attack, they took me to the hospital. Because I was a prisoner, they put me in this cage with these bars and wire. I couldn't wait with regular people. They kept me waiting in there, like a dog, while I was getting sicker. I couldn't do anything but sit there in that little cage and look at the walls and wait for the doctor. It took hours. I thought, 'This is it. I'm going to die in here.'?"
The prison stint also took a toll on Danny, who was incarcerated just after learning Elizabeth was pregnant. He slipped further into depression. On the hearth in their home, Elizabeth keeps the stack of pictures she and her parents sent Danny while he was in prison. Mixed between family photos, pictures of pets, and wishes from church members were photos Elizabeth took of her bare belly as it swelled with their baby. "The photos got me by," Danny says. "But I was missing Elizabeth's pregnancy. And thinking about my child growing up without me was hard to take."
The Carriers say Elizabeth wasn't handling it well either. "She lost interest in her pregnancy," Elizabeth's mother, Lois, says. "We were worried she was going to lose the baby."
Grayson's insistence that the Colomb family be imprisoned while they awaited sentencing surprised both Melancon and the Colomb family's attorneys. "It seemed mean," Shapiro, Edward Colomb's lawyer, says. "He didn't have to do that." It also may have come back to bite him. The Colombs' four months in federal prison introduced them to one brave inmate who came forward with information that would devastate Grayson's case and set the family free.
The Government's Case Comes Apart
On the day the Colomb trial began, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Mickel, who works in the same office as Brett Grayson, received an extraordinary letter from a federal inmate named Quinn Alex, whom Mickel had prosecuted in a drug case.
While serving time at the Federal Correctional Institution in Three Rivers, Texas, Alex shared a cell with another convicted felon named Charles Anderson. Alex was upset because he had arranged for his girlfriend to wire Anderson's girlfriend $2,200 in exchange for a file that included information about and photographs of the Colomb family. Alex had heard about the Colomb case from other inmates and planned to use the information he'd bought from Anderson to testify against the Colombs in exchange for time off from his own drug sentence. But after receiving Alex's money, Anderson was transferred, and he never delivered on his promise.
Alex didn't write to Mickel to expose the fact that inmates at Three Rivers were illegally sharing information and perjuring themselves in drug prosecutions. He was asking Mickel to prosecute Anderson for stealing his money. But the implications of the letter were profound. It was more evidence in support of the allegations from the Cotton trial about a perjury-generating jailhouse snitch ring in the federal prison system.
Attorneys for the Colomb family would later discover that Alex's letter implicated several of the witnesses Grayson intended to call at the Colomb trial. In fact, by the time Grayson presented the letter to Judge Melancon on March 24, 2006, three of those witnesses had already testified. Melancon ordered Alex transferred to a nearby facility where he could be questioned by defense attorneys. After consulting with an attorney, Alex took the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer any questions.
The Colombs' lawyers immediately asked for a mistrial. Perhaps due in part to the fact that he'd already been rebuked by the Fifth Circuit on the issue of informant testimony, Melancon denied the request. The jury in the Colomb case never learned of Alex's letter. It's a decision Melancon now says he regrets. "The allegation that money exchanged hands is really troubling," Melancon says. "Where there's that much smoke, there must be some fire. I should have declared a mistrial. Had the jury known what I knew, I don't think they would have returned a guilty verdict."
Alex's complaint was more than a mere allegation. Defense lawyers later produced Western Union records documenting the $2,200 transfer. Although he argued against revealing Alex's letter to the jury, Grayson called just eight more witnesses, far short of the 31 he had originally slated.
More revelations followed. While in the holding facility, Danny Davis met inmate "John Doe" while running prison Bible study sessions, and the two became friends. John Doe served time at Beaumont Low at the same time as many of the witnesses who testified in the Colomb trial. He soon concluded that Davis and his family had been wrongfully convicted. "He told me, 'I don't think you're no drug dealer. And I can't believe your mama is either,'?" Davis says. According to the affidavit Doe signed, between 2003 and 2004 he observed witnesses who would later testify in the Colomb case "reviewing documents, including photographs." He added, "It was obvious to me that these persons and others were preparing to testify against people for something that they did not do." John Doe's allegations were specific, verifiable, and consistent with both the Alex letter and the allegations from the Cotton
Unlike Grayson's witnesses, John Doe had nothing to gain from coming forward and in fact had quite a bit to lose. "I'm willing to testify in court about what I saw," he wrote in his affidavit, "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." In May 2006, two more witnesses came forward with evidence that government witnesses lied in the Colomb case. These witnesses also corroborated and confirmed what was in Quinn Alex's letter and John Doe's affidavit.
Attorneys for the Colomb family immediately filed motions for a new trial. In a sharply worded ruling issued on August 31, 2006, Judge Melancon threw out all of the Colomb convictions. Moreover, he strongly urged the U.S. Attorney's Office to conduct a thorough investigation into the allegations of information sharing and ruled that if the government wanted to retry its case, it would have to first present him with the results of that investigation.
"What Judge Melancon did was rather ingenious," says William Goode, Danny Davis' lawyer. "The government either had to conduct this big investigation, which almost certainly would have impacted other cases, or they had to drop the charges against the Colombs. There's no way they were going to conduct that investigation."
In December 2006, Grayson's office dropped the charges against the Colombs. Melancon then dismissed them with prejudice, precluding the government from ever bringing them again. Grayson referred all media queries to his supervisor, U.S. Attorney Donald Washington, who then took one last jab at the family. Refusing to admit the Colombs were innocent, Washington told the Lafayette Advertiser, "Though we continue to believe that these defendants were, in fact, trafficking drugs, we have decided not to pursue the case because of witness issues."
The Colombs are free now and no longer need to worry about the conspiracy case. Ann and James Colomb's home is safe from the U.S. government's attempts to seize it. They and their children also say the police harassment has stopped. But the long ordeal took a toll on the family, and Ann and James have no savings left.
Legal experts say the Colombs are unlikely to get any compensation for their wrongful conviction and imprisonment. Last December, they found an attorney to help them with a lawsuit, but it's a long shot at best, mostly because there's no one to sue. The prison snitches themselves have no money. Any action against the sheriff's deputies is well past the deadline set by law and would be difficult to prove anyway.
The most likely target of such a suit would be Assistant U.S. Attorney Grayson and his employer, the U.S. government. But Grayson and the federal government enjoy near total immunity from such suits. Prosecutors are almost completely insulated from lawsuits in order to prevent them from factoring potential litigation into their decision whether to pursue a case. A complaint would have to show that a prosecutor willfully or maliciously pursued charges he knew to be false—both of which are extremely difficult to prove.
After dismissing the charges against the Colombs in December 2006, Judge Melancon strongly urged U.S. Attorney Donald Washington's office to investigate the allegations of information sharing at the federal prison facilities named in the Cotton and Colomb cases. "The problem wasn't just this case," Melancon says. "We potentially have a huge problem with this network in the federal prison system.
The question is how deep and far it goes. It's worthy of an investigation at the highest levels." He asked that Washington's office either conduct its own investigation or have either the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas (where the prisons are located) or another investigator from the U.S. Department of Justice conduct it.
As of press time, none of the Colomb lawyers, the Colomb family, or anyone else affiliated with the case were aware of any such investigation. Melancon says he's confident it's being done, although he's heard nothing about the investigation since his December 2006 ruling. Phone calls to U.S. Attorney Washington, Assistant U.S. Attorney Grayson, and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Texas inquiring about the status of the investigation were not returned.
None of the witnesses in the Colomb case has been indicted. In fact, the federal government plans to use some of them again. In May 2006, Assistant U.S. Attorney Todd Clemons indicted seven men in another drug conspiracy case in Louisiana, also stemming from the prosecution of Houston kingpin John Timothy Cotton. According to Alfred Boustany, the attorney for one of the indicted seven, Clemons plans to call witnesses from the same prisons where the allegations of information sharing have lingered, including some of the witnesses from the Colomb case. There are already allegations of information sharing in the new case, including letters turned over by one inmate's girlfriend in which a prison informant gives other inmates specific instructions on what to say to prosecutors.
Because Judge Melancon is scheduled to preside over that trial as well, he wouldn't comment on it.
But sources close to the case say that in preliminary court proceedings, Melancon gave federal prosecutors a stern warning that he won't allow uncorroborated snitch testimony and didn't want to see a repeat of the Colomb fiasco in his courtroom.
"In my 30 years of criminal defense, the federal court system is the worst I've ever seen," Boustany says. "Especially with drug cases. The government is prodding these people to lie. There's no other way to look at it."
Ann Colomb's lawyer, Gerald Block, adds, "This case scared the hell out of me. These were clearly innocent people. And they nearly went to prison for a long time."
Last July, Ann Colomb sifted through the half-dozen ratty briefcases cluttering her kitchen counter—cases spilling over with the court documents, arrest records, and statements from her boys and their friends she has collected over the years. She was putting together a short summary of what happened to her and her family to pitch to a Baton Rouge attorney she'd hoped might handle her lawsuit against the government. That attorney declined, as did many others, before she finally found someone to file the suit for her—just before the time limit set by the statute of limitations expired.
"What happened to us should never happen to anyone," she says. "It breaks my heart that they're trying to do it again."
Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason.
ADDENDUM: On March 13th, after this article went to press but before it appeared in print, Judge Tucker Melancon issued an order stating that on March 10, 2008 he met with U.S. Attorney Donald Washington and several assistant U.S. attorneys (though not Brett Grayson). The subject of the meeting was his order that the allegations of information sharing and perjury among prison informants revealed in the Colomb and Cotton trials be investigated. As a result of that meeting, Melancon determined that his order for an investigation had "been complied with."
The results of that investigation, however, are sealed. A clerk for Melancon said the judge couldn't comment on what was in the report because some of it may pertain to cases that could appear before his court. While that's understandable, it's unfortunate for the Colomb family. Not only will they not get to learn exactly why they were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned, it's likely that the contents of that investigation could be relevant to their civil lawsuit against Grayson and the federal government.