Drug War Crimes Kill, Incarcerate Innocent

Published August 14, 2007

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Late last month, the House Judiciary Committee held hearings on the death of the Kathryn Johnston, the 92-year-old Atlanta woman killed by police during a November 2006 drug raid on her home.

Johnston died when she mistook a team of narcotics officers for criminal intruders. When the police broke down her door, she met them with an old pistol. They opened fire, and killed her.

A subsequent investigation revealed that the entire chain of events up to and shortly after Johnston's death were beset with lies, planted evidence, and cover-up on the part of the narcotics cops. They fabricated an imaginary informant to get the search warrant for Ms. Johnston's home. They planted evidence on a convicted felon, arrested him, then let him off in exchange for his tip—which he made up from whole cloth—that they'd find drugs in Ms. Johnston's house.

When they realized their mistake, they then tried to portray an innocent old woman as a drug dealer. They planted marijuana in Ms. Johnston's basement while she lay handcuffed and bleeding on the floor.

More investigation revealed that this kind of behavior wasn't aberrant, but common among narcotics officers in the Atlanta Police Department. Police Chief Richard Pennington eventually dismissed or reassigned the entire narcotics division of the APD.

What came out at the hearings investigating Kathryn Johnston's death was even more disturbing.

In one eye-popping exchange, two congressmen—one Democrat and one Republican—confronted Wayne Murphy, the assistant director of the FBI Directorate of Intelligence about the way the FBI uses drug informants. Rep. Dan Lundgren, R-Calif., and Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., told Murphy they were troubled by reports that the FBI had looked the other way while some of its drug informants participated in violent crimes, and that the agency then failed to notify local authorities, leaving many of those crimes unsolved.

Lundgren and Delahunt said they were also troubled by reports that in order to protect the identity of its informants, the FBI had withheld exculpatory evidence from criminal trials, resulting in innocent people going to prison.

This is worth repeating. The FBI has determined that in some cases, it's better to let innocent people be assaulted, murdered, or wrongly sent to prison than to halt a drug investigation involving one of its confidential informants.

Could Murphy assure the U.S. Congress, Delahunt and Lundgren asked, that the FBI has since instituted policies to ensure that kind of thing never happens again?

Murphy hemmed and hawed, but ultimately said that he could not make any such assurance. That in itself should have been huge news.

Shortly after the Johnston hearings concluded, another informant scandal emerged.

Jarrell Bray, a longtime informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration's Cleveland field office, admitted that with the cooperation of DEA agent Lee Lucas, he had repeatedly lied in court to secure the convictions of innocent people. Bray said he and Lucas fabricated evidence, falsely accused people who had done nothing wrong, then concocted bogus testimony to secure their convictions.

Bray's admission could result in dozens of overturned convictions.

There's nothing new about any of this. The problems with the use and abuse of drug informants have been known for years. Policymakers have just decided it's more important to keep up a brave front in the drug war than admit to the shortcomings. Bogus testimony from drug informants has led to wrongful arrest and/or incarceration of innocent people in Dallas, Texas; Hearne, Texas; St. Louis, Missouri; and Church Point, La.; to list just a handful of the more egregious examples.

In fact, more than 12 years ago, the National Law Journal ran a three-part series on the issue of drug informants. The magazine reviewed more than a thousand search warrants in four cities. It found widespread abuse with respect to the use of informants, and issued an urgent warning that "there is little or no oversight of the informant system," and that as a result, "the nation's system of justice is in danger."

Not much has changed.

The article was spurred by the case of Donald Carlson, a San Diego businessman who was nearly killed in 1992 after an informant's faulty tip led police to raid his home. Like Kathryn Johnston, Carlson thought the police were criminal intruders, and fired at them in defense of his home as they broke down his door. He was shot several times in the back, and spent six weeks in intensive care.

As in Atlanta, a subsequent investigation revealed severe deficiencies in the use of informants for drug crimes. The informant in Carlson's case was later convicted on 25 counts of lying to federal law enforcement officials.

In fact, Johnston and Carlson aren't the only ones. Bad informants have led to mistaken drug raids all over the country. Many of these raids have resulted in the deaths of innocent people, including Harlem's Alberta Spruill, Denver's Ismael Mena, Houston's Pedro Navarro, and Albuquerque's Ralph Garrison.

Dave Doddridge is a 20-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department and a former narcotics officer. He's now a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of current and former cops who have come out against the drug war. Doddridge says what happened in Atlanta isn't at all uncommon, and shouldn't be mistaken for a few rogue police officers acting out of line.

"There's tremendous pressure to 'climb the ladder' after you make a drug bust," he says, referring to the practice of getting one drug offender to give up information on his suppliers and superiors. "You want to get up that ladder before word hits the street, and the guys you're after know that you're on to them. That leads to the temptation to take shortcuts," he says. "What happened in Atlanta goes on all over the country."

These sorts of police tactics would be morally dubious if they were being used to fight terrorism, or to ensure national security. But they grow more absurd—and more intolerable—when you consider the ultimate end, here. None of this deception, corruption, and abuse is being employed to catch sleeper Al-Qaeda cells, or to catch murderers or serial killers or pedophiles. It's being used to stop people from getting high.

Radley Balko is a senior editor with Reason magazine. He publishes the weblog, TheAgitator.com.

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