By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
During Workman's trial, under questioning by Wyatt, Megress admitted that he had violated the terms of his agreement with the D.A.'s office by using drugs while working as an informant. Wyatt also was able to show that, in violation of task force protocol, Megress had not been in plain view of a task force member during the alleged drug buys. Additionally, Wyatt pointed out that Megress's wife lived at the housing project. And he theorized that Megress, once out of sight of task force officers, was able to slip into his wife's unit, retrieve drugs he had already stashed there, and then bring the drugs back to the officers with the story that he had purchased them from a Columbus Village resident. Wyatt knew it would not be easy to sell his theory to a small-town jury.
"You have these people from whatever walk of life they are from," says Wyatt. "They walk into a courtroom, and they see a young black man sitting at the defense table. And their first thought is 'I wonder what this guy did.' And when they hear the word 'cocaine,' they start making assumptions. The presumption of innocence is supposed to be there. But in order to get somebody to recognize that presumption of innocence, and maintain it, you got to change the way they think. And it's real tough to do. They have no point of reference. All they know is drugs and black male."
In March, a Robertson County jury, composed of 11 whites and one black, deadlocked 11-to-1 for the acquittal of Corvian Workman. A few weeks after the trial, with the credibility of his informant in shambles, the district attorney of Robertson County dismissed the charges against Workman and 16 other people who had been arrested during the November roundup. Wyatt says that thinking about the 11 defendants who pled out before he raised questions about the legitimacy of the arrests sends "a chill up my spine."
Both the ACLU and the NAACP have asked the Justice Department to investigate.
District Attorney Paschall "does have to bear some responsibility," says Wyatt. "He took taxpayer funds, and he expended them on this confidential informant, which was a waste of taxpayers' money. In the end, he did the right thing" by dropping the charges. "But his motives may have been the scrutiny and the fact that he couldn't get a conviction. He had to cover his ass."
But Paschall, who has been replaced as head of the task force, has not been the only official in Robertson County with an exposed derriere. Following the arrests in November, Hearne city councilman Workman introduced an idea that he believed would deal with the city's drug dealers and users in a more evenhanded way. Workman's plan, which initially was approved by the council, called for the city to spend $370,000 to hire North Carolina-based private security company ShadowGuard to enforce drug laws in Hearne for four months -- and to put an end to racial profiling while enforcing those laws.
"From your words to God's ears," says ShadowGuard president Rick Castillo. "Because that's basically what we found. Hearne, Texas, is 50 years behind the times in terms of anything relating to affirmative action."
Castillo found that in a city where African-Americans make up almost 50 percent of the population, there was not one person of color on its police force. In addition to bringing in its own officers, who would have been licensed by the state of Texas, ShadowGuard would have trained the Hearne Police Department in the area of narcotics law enforcement. The company also planned a computer system upgrade and the legally questionable installation of a closed-circuit television system throughout the city to spot possible drug deals going down -- regardless of who was making them.
"You have these kids that make a few dollars" selling drugs, says Workman, who is also a Baptist minister. "Which I don't agree with. Meanwhile, the guys who are making thousands and thousands of dollars go free. ShadowGuard wasn't going to leave anybody out. And that scared a lot of people."
Indeed, following the approval of the ShadowGuard contract, threatening telephone calls were made to the home of a black city councilmember, 69-year-old Thelma Drennan, one of three African-Americans on the five-member Hearne governing body. A week after its original approval, the council took a second vote and canceled the deal. Drennan was one of two black members to change her vote -- Workman was the lone holdout. While Drennan says her reversal was based on the price tag of the plan, she also says she doesn't believe the threats directed toward her will ever be thoroughly investigated.
"I don't know that they will ever look into it," says Drennan, a woman with a fragile build who admits she was frightened by the calls. "Somehow I get the feeling that they don't care if something were to happen to me. It would just be one more black person gone."
Hearne isn't the only small town in Texas where the actions of antidrug task forces have been called into question. And while those questions don't always have racial overtones, they usually have economic ones -- task forces preying upon the poverty-stricken and the young. This January a grand jury in Brownwood, about 125 miles west of Fort Worth, issued 75 indictments involving 40 defendants. The indictments were the result of undercover work -- code name Operation Loser -- last summer by the West-Central Texas Narcotics Task Force based in Abilene.
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