Total Contempt

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

But Zbranek would not be swayed. "I'll let him out as soon as he produces the documents," he told the Beaumont Enterprise.

Ira Briggs died April 1. Her husband again petitioned the judge, this time to attend the funeral. Zbranek wrote back the same day, with a terse one-line note: "Dear Mr. Briggs, The keys are in your pocket."

Jackson tried again. "Surely in a town named Liberty, there must be some quarter given for compassion, even in the exacting domain of the law," he wrote to Zbranek. "This may end up being one of the most momentous decisions you are called to make."

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.

When Zbranek refused, Jackson flexed his public relations muscle. There was a press conference on the steps of the Liberty County Courthouse and a call for then-governor George W. Bush to intervene. Jackson's right-hand man, Leonard Mungo, cornered every microphone he could find, even calling Zbranek a "tool of the devil." (Mungo did not return repeated calls for comment, nor did the Rainbow/PUSH Houston office.)

Mungo asked Humphrey to drop the suit against Briggs. In exchange, she says, he offered to help with the land claim. But Humphrey was not moved. "Common sense would tell you, all they'd do is get Briggs out of jail and that would be the end of it," she sniffs.

And if the TV cameras rattled Zbranek, he certainly didn't show it. "Did you see where the lawyer for Jesse Jackson said I was an instrument of the devil?" he cackles. Nonplussed, he adds, "My wife agreed with him!"

Briggs listened to the funeral from jail via his sister's cell phone.

After the funeral, Jackson's people departed. (Says Michael Pichinson, an assistant attorney with Liberty County, "They left pretty quickly when they realized all the plaintiffs on the case were also African-American.") The reporters stopped calling.

But Briggs's daughter, Whirry, had made a promise to her mother. Ira Briggs's last request, she remembers, was simple: "Look after your dad. Don't forget about him. God may take me -- but don't forget about him."

Whirry was seven months pregnant. She didn't have any connections or money. So she did the only thing she could think of. She wrote to the NAACP, Montel Williams and Oprah Winfrey. Not one wrote back.

As a last resort, she also sent her letter to the ACLU.

When Michael Skaddon got Whirry's letter in the spring of 2000, Briggs had been in jail three years and two months. He'd never been charged with a crime. If he had the bank records, he argued, why would he have chosen to miss his wife's death and burial?

As chair of the ACLU's legal review board, it was Skaddon's job to sort through complaints. And he couldn't believe what he was reading.

"I don't know why Judge Zbranek took this so personally," he says. "Nonproduction of documents happens all the time. People are sanctioned, and then they go ahead with the trial."

Judges do have a wide latitude: A man getting divorced in Pennsylvania, H. Beatty Chadwick, failed to produce $2.5 million his wife claimed he had stashed overseas. He's spent eight years behind bars.

Jail can be a necessary tool, says David Crump, a law professor at the University of Houston. "Most of us obey the law, as well as the order of the court," he says. "But there are a few individuals who say, 'I'm not going to do it.' " In those cases, judges need the threat of jail.

If anything, Crump says, judges might want to use it more. "We think we don't want judges doing something because they're annoyed, but I've seen dispassionate judges let a case run literally to the point where it bankrupts everyone who's come there in good faith." Ordering a defendant to jail becomes a problem, he says, only if that person cannot comply with the judge's order.

Skaddon and his ACLU cohort, David George, were convinced that was true in this case. "If you can't comply, it's illegal," George says of the order for the bank documents. "And if it's clear you're never going to comply, it's also illegal" to keep someone locked up.

So the lawyers filed another motion. Testifying before Zbranek, Briggs explained that he didn't know what had happened to the records. He had no receipts. He explained, vaguely, that he was "in the world" at the time.

Zbranek didn't buy it. "Now, you know, Bill Gates or Nelson Rockefeller or some of those people might forget and not remember what they did with $120,000, but I don't believe Mr. Briggs has forgotten," Zbranek fired back. "And I think he's still evasive."

Stealing $120,000 is a first-degree felony, Zbranek noted. "You know, I was born at night but not last night. You don't get rid of $120,000 and just don't know how it happened. 'I was in the world,' he said. You can't. It's just not credible."

First Zbranek, and then the appeals court, turned the ACLU attorneys down. Then the Texas Supreme Court. So they asked the U.S. District Court in Beaumont to order Briggs's release. The court agreed to hear the case in July 2001, but refused to let Briggs out in the meantime. And even when Briggs stood before Zbranek in 2002 and explained, finally, that he'd destroyed the records years before, the judge said he didn't believe him.

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