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Free Minds & Free Markets

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.

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  • ||

    If he does not stop causing trouble at the TJ memorial he will really find out what police harassment is!

  • ||

    Please allow me, once again, to thank you Radley for your diligent efforts in exposing prosecutorial incompetence and criminal(?) misconduct.

    I'm going to go throw up in disgust now.

  • ||

    I'm from Louisiana, and I can tell you that the "War On Drugs" has corrupted law enforcement there; in the town my parents live in, (about 40 mi. from New Orleans) the sheriff threatened to plant weed on the newly-elected mayor, before said-sheriff was caught running guns he probably got from drug-busts.
    Stories like Jena 6 are milked for drama by the Mainstream media, but it's stories like this that are much more common; thanks for covering it!

  • ||

    What I really wanna know is if one of the loyal H&R readers is moved to take up arms and plug a few crummy D.A.s (as daily does seem more and more likely) whether Radley would be brought up on incitement charges.

  • ||

    LMNOP,

    No. Reporting facts does not constitute incitement to violence.

    Yet.

  • ||

    No. Reporting facts does not constitute incitement to violence.

    And it won't get you a job at ABC News, The New Republic, The New York Times (unless you are Bill Kristol) or a lot of other places too.

  • ||

    another Reason i'm proud to be an american

    oh wait

  • ||

    Was it Jefferson who said, "I believe that Liberty from time to time must be refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants"? Or something like that.

    Would Bill Kristol be considered at tyrant?

  • ||

    Would Bill Kristol be considered at tyrant?

    No. Well, maybe to the meekest of shadow fearing webheads, or some of the writers and editors of his magazine.

  • ||

    I find it difficult to believe that Assistant U.S. Attorney Brett Grayson would knowingly seek out a conviction on these people. He, and his superior, based on his statement, still think the Columbs are guilty of drug trafficking. They are clearly delusional and therefore, I suggest, that they both be removed from office due to severe mental incapacity.

  • ||

    They are clearly delusional and therefore, I suggest, that they both be removed from office due to severe mental incapacity.

    And people scoff at Berlusconi's call for regular mental evaluations of prosecutors.

  • LarryA||

    "If you haven't done anything wrong, what do you have to worry about?"

  • ||

    Shit! Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit! The fact that the 'legal' system finally worked -- the Colombs have their lives back, with prejudice (literally and legally!) -- hardly imbues one with hope for a fine-tuned 'justice' system. Someone's head needs to role on this one -- and DA Washington and/or assistant DA Grayson seem front-and-center.

  • ||

    I'm pretty sure if Radley Balko ever decided to turn his attention to the "War on Sexual Predators," he'd find an equal number of egregious prosecutorial misconduct cases.

    However, I have to wonder if those cases would meet with as much sympathy, since drugs are cool.

  • Radley Balko||

    Michael,

    You haven't been reading this site long, have you?

  • RED GREEN||

    "Snitches"... has been a very popular strategy with the Feds...thats an old NAZI/Stalinist tactic,isn't it?

  • Angry African||

    Man, man, man. I have been in the US for 18 months. Before that the UK for 4 years, but I am a South African working on sustainability and African investment. I have been crying about the lack of good media out here in the US. I found it. Thanks for this piece. It reminds us what the media can be if they really want to be...

  • ||

    I was extremely disappointed in Mr Balko's article. What a disappointment! As a member of this family, this article presented false statements and inaccuracies. I think Mr Balko needs to check out Webster's and look up the definitions of "racist" as well as "prejudice", there are vast differences between the two. This only proves to me that crooked journalists are no better than crooked cops and prosecutors. Report the TRUTH, don't FABRICATE it!

  • ||

    bookworm333,

    As a member of what family? The Colombs? The Bookworm family?

    What are you talking about?

  • ||

    Time to bring in the feds and clean up law enforcement in this area. Also time for a lawsuit to drain the town dry of funds for allowing these racists to do this to these people. Make every person who turned a blind eye pay their taxes to reimburse the Colombs for what was done by their town to them.

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  • Alrazaak.com||

    If he does not stop causing trouble at the TJ memorial he will really find out what police harassment is

  • Alrazaak.com||

    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.

  • ||

    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.

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