Total Contempt

He cheated a family out of $120,000. It took four years in jail to make him the victim.

"This is taxing my patience," Zbranek huffed. "It's always something. Something didn't get brought, something is not here. We will be here until late summer at this pace before we get anything."

Zbranek gave Briggs two hours to drive to Beaumont, get the records and return to court. "You ducked and dodged the last time," he said. "So, today's the day to fish or cut bait."

When the hearing resumed two days later, Briggs had brought a box of paperwork. There were no bank statements in it. Nor would he answer questions about what he'd done with the money.

David George (left) fought to free Briggs.
Daniel Kramer
David George (left) fought to free Briggs.
Freddie Johnson sold muskrat pelts to pay Briggs.
Sarah Fenske
Freddie Johnson sold muskrat pelts to pay Briggs.

Zbranek threw Briggs in jail for contempt of court. He stayed two and a half months.

That isn't unusual, says Alex Albright, associate dean of the University of Texas School of Law. "If you disobey a court order in a civil case, they can toss you in the slam or fine you," she says. "And they can keep you in jail until you cure the contempt" -- in this case, answer questions.

A federal court ruled that Briggs had a right against incriminating himself and ordered his release. But the judge was allowed to order him to turn over the documents -- and Briggs just wasn't producing them. The best he could do was say they'd been misplaced. (The bank was no help, attorney Baker says, since it destroys records more than seven years old.)

More than a year had passed since Briggs's release when Zbranek decided in April 1997 that he'd, again, had enough. The judge openly wondered if Briggs was hiding the records to avoid criminal prosecution. "I think that he could produce them if he wanted to," Zbranek mused, "and therefore I'm going to hold him in jail until he does produce them."

The case had become a test of wills. Zbranek, a man too experienced and too feisty to be rattled by bad publicity, was not about to blink, but neither, apparently, was Briggs. He insisted he couldn't turn over the records because he couldn't find them.

He would stay in jail for the next four years and six months.

Certainly, Briggs's testimony had changed repeatedly, from promising the records to pleading the Fifth Amendment to claiming the documents were lost. At times, he seemed to be obstinate just because he didn't like Zbranek.

But by the April 1997 hearing, Briggs had good reason to surrender the records if he had them. His wife, Ira, had just suffered a stroke. Briggs had to leave her hospital bed to go to court.

The couple had been together almost 40 years. He'd dropped out of Texas Southern University after his first year, thanks to her ultimatum: "If you're not ready to get married, I'll move on." He got ready in a hurry. "A good girl is hard to find," he says.

In the next two years, while Briggs stewed in jail, doctors discovered cancer in his wife's colon, liver and ovaries.

By February 1999, it was clear: Ira Briggs was dying. Yolanda Renee Whirry, Briggs's oldest daughter, brought photos of her dad to the hospital. "She was giving up," Whirry says. "She said, 'I just want to go.' That was hard."

Briggs asked Zbranek to let him see his wife one last time. Zbranek declined.

Briggs grew to hate the judge, he says. As the case continued, "The judge was thinking, 'He's a black man, and I can have fun with him. Regardless of the law, I can have fun.' "

Without any evidence to prove it, Briggs became convinced that Baker and Zbranek were conspiring against him. "It's like they'd go out and drink whiskey at night and say, 'Here's what we're going to do to him.' And then they'd come to court the next day and do it."

Briggs felt helpless, alone and more than a little paranoid. He didn't see that he'd pushed the judge to the brink, only that he hadn't been charged with any crime and yet was growing old in jail. It must be because he was a black man in a justice system run by whites.

So someone in his family -- Briggs can't remember who -- summoned Jesse Jackson.

When Briggs's supporters reached Jackson, the leader of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition was still flying high. Just months before, Jackson had found himself in the spotlight thanks to President Bill Clinton's sex scandal. It was two years before Jackson would be engulfed by a sex scandal of his own, and he was only too willing to hit the talk show circuit as the first family's spiritual counselor.

And if Jackson was a master of anything, it was the bully pulpit. Corporations frequently caved in the face of his aggression, offering money or concessions to Rainbow/PUSH just to shut him up. Zbranek, an elected official and a good Democrat, must have seemed equally approachable.

Jackson started politely enough, with a letter to Zbranek in March 1999: "If Mr. Briggs is guilty of any civil wrong and or crime, then he and not his family should answer," Jackson wrote, appealing to the "moral and humanitarian equitable character of the court."

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