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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.