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Bringing Justice to Hearne

Residents and the national ACLU team up to bring justice to Hearne
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Bringing Justice to Hearne

Residents and the ACLU team up to abolish drug task forces

BY NATHAN LEVY

he Columbus Village apartment complex in Hearne, Texas, has become a national focus in the War on Drugs. Five years ago, drug task force officers dressed in black and carrying rifles swarmed Columbus’s drab brown buildings and bare dirt yards, terrorizing children and the elderly in the process. Dozens of residents were arrested on drug charges. Racism and police abuse have long bedeviled the federally subsidized housing project. Remarkably, though, the raid has become a central piece of a multi-pronged campaign to dismantle drug task forces nationwide and bring lasting change to this small city of 4,700, just 90 miles east of Austin. Change was on Charles Workman’s mind, as the affable community activist drove into Columbus Village on a Sunday afternoon this past February. He waved to residents, and the young men standing around greeted him warmly, a few even teasingly punching the 56-year-old’s arm. Workman, a coordinator for the Texas Justice Network, a non-profit group advocating criminal justice reform, was attempting to gin up attendance for a March bus ride at $25 a head from Hearne to the state Capitol. The trip was part of a Texas-wide effort, “Family Lobby Day,” to get legislators to reduce prison sentences and establish drug treatment programs. While some in Hearne have drug problems, many blacks say they have felt targeted by law enforcement because of their race. Of the town’s residents, 44 percent are black, 28 percent are Hispanic, and 27 percent are Anglo, according to the 2000 Census. Yet African Americans accounted for 79 percent of all arrests by the South Central Texas Narcotics Task Force in surrounding Robertson and Limestone Counties in 2000, according to data obtained from the agency’s own logs for an ACLU report. The study notes that by comparison, African Americans made up 39 percent of all task force arrests in other jurisdictions in Texas. Workman, a Baptist minister, grew up in Hearne. “We got a lot of work to do. I’ve never seen this many young men say ‘I want to help to do something,’” he said. “We got to teach our young men, teach them to stop doing things.” Workman reminded a couple of men who said they didn’t have the money for the bus trip about an upcoming local hip-hop function focused on education. Later, driving through Hearne, he offered a sobering assessment. “Most people here just don’t have any hope.” The despair partly stems from the repeated, multi-county drug task force stings in which residents have had their doors kicked in and apartments ransacked. But it also comes from a community so economically depressed that the Wal-Mart left town. A civil suit slated to be heard in federal district court in Waco on May 9 may address some of the worst excesses of the task force but bringing economic development and a new outlook to Columbus Village residents will take considerably more time and effort. Almost exactly two years after the November 2000 drug bust in Hearne resulted in 28 arrests for using and dealing crack cocaine, the national ACLU filed suit on behalf of those rounded up. The lawsuit alleges the arrests were racially motivated, given that all but one of those arrested were African American. Some had verifiable alibis. Almost all the transactions supposedly took place at Columbus Village. The suit alleges that Derrick Megress, the confidential informant used by the South Central Texas Regional Narcotics Task Force, was unreliable, poorly supervised, and fabricated evidence. Nine Hearne plaintiffs allege their Fourth Amendment (unreasonable search and seizure) and Fourteenth Amendment (guarantee of equal protection under the law) rights were violated. The plaintiffs want to put a stop to arrests without probable cause and seek a permanent injunction against law enforcement from conducting drug sweeps targeting blacks. Additionally, they seek monetary damages. The defendants in the civil suit include the task force, its officers at the time, and participating jurisdictions Robertson County and neighboring Limestone County. Also named is Robertson County District Attorney John Paschall, who was the project director of the task force, and is generally viewed as the mastermind behind the drug sweeps. He has denied the allegations of wrongdoing. The head of the ACLU’s Santa Cruz, California-based Drug Law Reform Project, Graham Boyd, is the lead attorney pushing the Hearne case. He hopes to alter how local and state governments spend drug task force money from the federal Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program. Byrne is under the administration of the U.S. Department of Justice. A victory in the case, he said, could transform how drug task forces operate, shift their emphasis from law enforcement to treatment, or eliminate them altogether. “Part of a broader agenda is to try to impose some real standards of accountability for drug laws,” Boyd said, “so [the task forces] are not engaged in corrupt police practices.” ne person whom informant Derrick Megress implicated was Regina Kelly, 28, a single mother of four girls and the lead plaintiff in the ACLU’s litigation. Kelly says she’s never used drugs. “[Megress] was dating my cousin, and I never had much of a conversation with him,” she said. “How can someone go to jail for something that they know in their heart they did not do?” The practice of using undercover operatives primarily to round up young black males in Hearne for drug charges has been going on for the past 15 years, according to the suit. Like other informants before him, Megress had a troubled past. He had been convicted twice of theft, had mental problems, was suicidal, and admitted using marijuana and cocaine. In 1999, the drug task force chose Megress, nicknamed “Little D,” and asked him to incriminate a list of 20 blacks District Attorney Paschall had compiled. Megress said Paschall told him to make the case against them or return to jail and face the consequences. “He told me he was going to get a 60-year sentence on me for the burglary,” Megress said in a videotaped deposition for the civil suit, adding that the district attorney threatened to put his family members in jail too. “Paschall said that while I was in prison, he would make sure another inmate raped me every day.” Megress said he feared for his life, and signed on in exchange for probation. He was promised $100 for each arrest beyond the list of 20, provided with money to make the cocaine buys, and given a hand-held tape recorder to document the transactions. He said Phillip “Red” Crowell, an agent in the task force and now a defendant in the civil suit, showed him how to make rocks of crack cocaine look like powdered cocaine, as the task force wanted to arrest people for dealing at least four grams of the substance. Crowell provided Megress with the rocks, and Megress said he crushed them and mixed them with flour or baking soda to use as proof of completed buys. Task force officers deny the allegations of improper conduct. “It’s Megress’s word against the officers’. The jury will have to decide who to believe,” said ACLU lead attorney Boyd. “What’s critical is that they shouldn’t have been using Megress in the first place.” The raid took place on November 2, 2000, based on evidence gathered months earlier. An elementary school is a stone’s throw from the housing project, and since both are drug-free zones, the penalties for drugs in those areas are higher. Milton Dunn, who was arrested in the bust and is one of the plaintiffs, said he met Megress that summer. Dunn, now 23, said he won $300 from him in a dice game, but was puzzled when Megress said, “I don’t want to do this to you.” Dunn initially believed Megress had a gun, but forgot about the incident, until the police came for him. Some of those who were arrested had alibis, the suit alleges, and most lived at Columbus Village. Quincy Higgins was working at a steel company at the time of the alleged transaction, and has a time card to prove it. Detra Tindle was giving birth at a local hospital at the time of the cocaine transaction she supposedly watched. Only one drug sting defendant ever went to trial, Corvian Workman, stepson of Charles. His case ended with a deadlocked jury in early 2001. Megress’s tapes of the “drug buys” were inaudible and couldn’t be used as evidence. After Megress failed a polygraph test when asked about tampering with evidence, Paschall had charges against Corvian Workman and 16 others dropped that April; other suspects already had pleaded guilty. Some sat in jail for months and now say they’re innocent. And many, like Kelly, still have the charges on their records. Paschall denied racism was a factor in the arrests, and told the media the charges were dropped because of insufficient evidence and nothing else. He resigned in February 2001 as the project commander of the task force but was reelected as district attorney last November. Doug Becker, who is defending Paschall, said the prosecution has no evidence of racial motivation. “Their proof is completely statistical.” He explained one of his witnesses, a University of Texas professor, prepared a study positing drug use is not a matter of race, but poverty, unemployment, and lack of education. “Look, African Americans have higher crime rates that whites,” Becker said in an interview in his Austin office. “You can take a racist view because they’re African Americans, or you can look for reasons.” But interviews, depositions, and published reports paint a troubling portrait of Paschall and his motivations. Amy Paschall-White, one of his two daughters, testified her father joked with friends, including task force commander Ron Garney, about the annual drug arrests as a period when “it was time to round up the niggers” and “make niggers shit in their pants.” He also told Garney the only way to save Hearne was to bomb Columbus Village and get rid of all the blacks, she testified in her affidavit. Paschall got into fistfights with his daughter Debbie Paschall, Amy said, because of his objections to Debbie dating black men. And Paschall’s ex-wife Sandra Lee Paschall testified he often screamed at African-American school children outside, telling them to “go back to their side of town.” There have been allegations of corruption concerning Paschall as well. Sandra Lee Paschall said in her deposition that shortly after they were married in 1986, he was charged but never sentenced for stealing money from the “hot check fund” of the district attorney’s office. He admitted to her he stole the money, but got rid of the evidence, she said. Paschall lost his bid for reelection some time after that, and entered private practice. He was elected again in November 1992. A former employee in the district attorney’s office, Claudia Lynn Griffin, testified in an affidavit that she was concerned that Paschall was using a county credit card for diamond rings and personal trips three or four years ago. The Texas Rangers investigated, and Paschall was ordered to pay for some of the items, she said. Griffin now works in the district clerk’s office. In a deposition, Paschall denied stealing funds. He did not return several calls seeking comment on the other allegations or about his leadership of the task force. “As far as anything to do with integrity, there have been many allegations by the plaintiffs,” said defense attorney Becker. “Nothing, zero, nada has been proved.” Becker, who said he’s argued four cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and often represents government entities. “Those who live with John Paschall know he’s not racist.” One person who is not critical of Paschall is city councilman Michael Washington, who is black. Washington said he once dealt with the district attorney concerning a family violence matter relating to his divorce. Paschall, who’s been in office off and on since the mid-1980s, was fair, listened to both sides, and ordered Washington to take an anger management class. For Regina Kelly, the trauma from the 2000 raid continues today. Kelly, who was arrested while working a double shift at her waitress job in College Station, initially thought it was for unpaid parking tickets. Her bail was $70,000, though later reduced to $10,000. Her case was dropped along with the rest of the defendants’ cases, but her record is still marred by the bust. A few weeks ago, Kelly says she was fired from her job at the Country Kitchen restaurant in Hearne, where she had worked since August 2004. The termination came about after Paschall talked with her manager. In her job application, Kelly had checked a box saying she had not been convicted of a felony. Calls for comment from the restaurant manager were not returned. he nation’s drug task forces—the program is at work in 43 states—get money from the Byrne Grant program, created by Congress in 1988. Named in honor of Edward Byrne, a New York police officer murdered by drug gang members, it’s a partnership among federal, state, and local governments. As long as task forces hit their arrest quotas, the organizations continue to get funding. Texas has received anywhere from $25 million to $32 million from Byrne in the past couple of fiscal years, though that’s about to change. President George Bush’s budget for the next fiscal year proposes to slash the $600 million nationwide effort to $60 million, and then axe it all by 2007, according to the Associated Press. The White House said it would rather spend its resources on anti-terrorism, indicating a change in policy on the War on Drugs to a more national, centralized approach. Media reports have said some in the administration are worried Byrne has become an entitlement program for state and local governments. As the debate has unfolded, law enforcement agencies around the country have protested, pointing to a decrease in methamphetamine labs and cocaine trafficking rings, thanks to agencies cooperating with one another. That may be true, but the task forces have focused on low-level dealing, and not organized drug cartels, said Wayne State University criminologist Brad Smith, who’s studied drug task forces in Ohio. The result is that there has been little impact on the availability of drugs. The War on Drugs should switch gears, and spread itself out over treatment programs and prevention, as well as law enforcement, Smith suggests. The ACLU’s Boyd contends the use of confidential informants actually swells the drug trade in communities, since the agents freely use hundreds of dollars from the task forces to buy narcotics. Texas has seen more than its share of rogue, sweeping drug arrests of minorities by multi-county task forces. The most egregious was in the Panhandle ranching town of Tulia in 1999. (See “The Color of Justice,” June 23, 2000.) It ultimately resulted in pardons, a conviction of the informant for perjury, and a $6 million se
tlement divvied up among those arrest
d in the bogus sting who had filed suit. In 2002, the Department of Public Safety took oversight of the state’s nearly 50 task forces. Gov. Rick Perry at the time cited a desire for standardized procedures of the then-550 officers. The change hasn’t helped, the ACLU of Texas argued in a 2004 report, “Flawed Enforcement.” The report identified at least two-dozen scandals among the Byrne-funded task forces in the state. And once again, the future of drug task forces is emerging as a theme at the state Capitol this legislative session. The issue has galvanized politicians on both sides of the aisle. One of their most outspoken critics is Austin Republican Rep. Terry Keel, a former sheriff and assistant district attorney (See “Even Keel?” March 14, 2003). Keel is chairman of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, which in January released a report advocating the abolishment of the task forces. The report prompted Rep. Terri Hodge (D-Dallas) this session to file House Bill 1239 to put all local drug task forces solely under the command and control of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Keel proposed a similar bill last session, which wasn’t passed. During testimony on Hodge’s bill in committee, the case of Hearne was raised as a scandal that must be avoided in the future. It’s an example that has garnered national media attention, including stories in The New York Times and the Washington Post. The PBS television program “Frontline” aired an episode last summer that focused in part on Hearne as a case of what happens to poor people when they’re pushed through the criminal justice system on low-level crimes, and forced to accept plea bargains. The ACLU’s Boyd hopes that county governments realize that it’s potentially too costly to participate in the task forces. It is unclear how much the two counties that comprised the task force, Limestone and Robertson, would have to pay in damages if the defense loses the ACLU lawsuit. In a setback for Limestone County, U.S. District Judge Walter Smith, Jr. ruled in January that it was liable for the actions of the multi-county entity, now called the Agriplex Drug Task Force, even though it didn’t participate in the actions. “That’s a significant incentive for counties that do not want to be in task forces,” said Boyd. Charles Workman understands the dynamic of Hearne-style justice as well as anyone. Paschall has a vendetta against his family, he believes, as his stepson and nephew were both arrested in the sting. At the time, he was a city councilman and area NAACP president, but those responsibilities drained him. In the middle of fighting the authorities over his kin’s arrests, he got fired from his state job as a counselor at the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, was without a car, and had to live with family members. He also was indicted for illegal voting in 2003 along with 16 others, for casting absentee ballots for residents who had asked for help. He pleaded guilty, received five years of probation, and was granted deferred adjudication. His stepson, Corvian Workman, recently dropped out as a plaintiff in the civil suit, after being indicted for selling drugs, and he is currently in prison for not paying child support. “A lot of times, I just wanted to give up,” said the civil rights veteran. But Workman says his new job helping the community has reenergized him. He has become the point person in a local civil rights crusade in Hearne. “It’s as though the Civil Rights movement never made it out to East Texas,” said Will Harrell, executive director of the ACLU of Texas. Workman recently organized town hall style meetings on voter education, enlisted clergy for help, and led weekend brainstorming sessions. “We’ve got to get something for the kids to do because they’re just idle,” he said. “We want to build an infrastructure, and get jobs.” At the urging of Workman and others, Texas lawmakers have come to the hamlet over the last several months. Rep. Hodge and Rep. Jim Dunnam (D-Waco) attended meetings about allegations against the drug task force. Dunnam represents the area. Others helping residents mobilize include officials from the NAACP in Huntsville, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the ACLU. Joyce Ann Brown, who heads the Dallas-based Texas Justice Network, has visited at least twice this year to gauge the amount of structural guidance that’s required to bring about change. It won’t happen if the black men of the community do not get involved, she said. Despite his legal problems, Workman hopes to “use the ballot box” to correct problems in and around Hearne. That means voting for Republican candidates who might have fresh ideas, rather than the typical Democrats, he said. But this being Hearne, it won’t be easy, as an anonymous letter that circulated around the community in March attested. The letter was mailed to African Americans in Hearne—many of them elderly, who voted absentee in 2003—advising them against doing it again in May’s election. “Be safe. Vote in person. JUST SAY NO TO ELECTION FRAUD!!!” the letter said. A smaller-than-expected crowd met March 24 at the St. Emanuel Baptist Church to discuss the note. Many in attendance voiced their outrage about the threat implied by the letter, but vowed to stay involved in the political process nonetheless. One woman encouraged the two-dozen people there to analyze each candidate’s agenda, and acquaint themselves with current elected officials. “I hope people take out their frustrations by going to vote,” added Judge Fredrick Webber, 33. There are signs the ACLU’s civil suit is already provoking some changes in Hearne. Uncharacteristically, Paschall recently sent out a memo on county stationary stating that his office was investigating the threatening absentee voting letter, accusing the anonymous senders of being “bigoted and mean-spirited.” Hearne Police Chief Robert Parsley says that since taking office about 14 months ago, he has placed greater weight on having the demographics of the force match those of Hearne. There are now three black officers out of thirteen, compared to one black officer when Parsley began. “We have good relations,” he explained. “There’s better communication between the police department and all the community, not just blacks but Hispanics.” The overriding concern, though, is finding meaningful jobs, which are elusive in Hearne. Fast food restaurants sprinkle the town, but offer only minimum wage salaries. Manufacturing employers include a railcar service firm and a door-making company, but openings are precious. As a result, many travel as far as 20 miles for work in nearby College Station or Bryan. As for the plaintiffs and residents of Columbus Village, a lot of them don’t care what happens in the upcoming trial, Kelly said. “It’s more monetary for everybody else.” She said the defense offered her $4,000 in a settlement discussion, but she refused. “My focus is about getting it off my record.” For Charles Workman, it would just be great for the government to put its resources toward helping the community rather than kicking in its doors. “There’s a lot of a need,” Workman said. “That money could be used for a lot of positive things other than drug stings.” Nathan Levy is a freelance writer based in Austin.