Total Contempt

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

When George first took the case for the ACLU, he was at Baker Botts, a large prestigious Houston firm. But within the year, he and another lawyer started their own firm, and they took Briggs with them.

For the fledgling two-lawyer operation, the pro bono case was a major drain. George estimates that he alone donated some $100,000 of his time.

But it did bring acclaim to Edwards & George. The suite's walls are lined with framed newspaper clips about the case, each carefully matted, each portraying Briggs as an unfortunate victim, a jailed man "never charged with a crime." It was thought to be the longest imprisonment for civil contempt in Texas. ("Judges do get fed up," says Albright, the UT dean. "But five years is pretty outrageous.")

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.

"This was a huge fight, but one that we would never even consider giving up," George says. "This is the reason you become a lawyer."

Richard Baker is flushed. Fair, with light blue eyes and a diminishing ring of blondish hair, he can't help it: When he gets emotional, he turns pink.

The lawyer clutches a sheaf of paper, computer printouts of the same stories that hang so proudly from the walls of Edwards & George. Baker's office is far more modest than George's plush suite; one assistant works in the kitchenette, beyond the industrial carpet and walls decked out in cheap wood paneling.

"This case was not a moneymaker for me," he says. Humphrey and her relatives paid his bill, in part, by hosting chicken dinners and selling raffle tickets. To help, he even sold the tickets out of his office. "People would ask, 'What is this raising money for?' And I'd be honest. I'd say, 'My fees!' "

The idea of Odis Briggs as a poor underdog angers Baker. He disgustedly reads excerpts from the stories: "Judge Zbranek is a 'tool of the devil'? Odis Briggs's 'constitutional rights'? Oh, come on. Come on! That is not what this is about!"

Over the years, Baker says, his efforts to provide reporters with legal opinions and depositions were virtually ignored. "Did they use them? Of course not! They wouldn't have had their story then!"

He proffers Briggs's deposition from the federal case last year. It is Briggs's most graphic explanation of what, exactly, he did with the Lewises' money.

Baker's clients had wondered about big new cars or record company investments, but Briggs's testimony is far more mundane. "I spent it," he said. "I used the money."

"Is it fair to say that you were living pretty high during those years when you had money?" George asked.

Briggs admitted he was. He opened an office in Beaumont. He bought office furniture and a photocopier. He said he'd walk around with $2,000 to $5,000 in his pocket. "I take the kids shopping. I take the wife shopping. I go to nightclubs."

He was a regular at a place called Club Tahiti. "If I see you sitting down having a drink, I send you a drink," he explained. "I never asked your name."

By the end of 1984, ten years before the family sued, he said, not a dime was left of the Lewis family's $120,000 investment.

As for the bank statements, "I never opened them. I just threw them away. I didn't want to be reminded."

He seemed to mourn the loss of cash more than his behavior. Five years after he first went to jail, Baker questioned him on the witness stand. First he asked if Briggs could see the people he'd taken money from in the courtroom. Yes, Briggs said.

"Have you ever once told them that you took their money away from them and they can never have it again?"

"No," Briggs answered.

"Have you ever told them you were sorry?" Baker asked.

"No," Briggs answered.

In April 2002, a federal magistrate agreed to allow Briggs out of jail until the matter could be resolved. Neither Baker nor Liberty County challenged the release. Briggs had to wear an ankle bracelet, and he wasn't allowed to leave Beaumont without the court's permission, even to see his daughter in Stafford.

After four years and eight months, Briggs was thrilled to be free. But it wasn't much of a victory. There was that ankle bracelet, after all, and he could be thrown back in jail at any point. So his lawyers took their case to the legislature.

Inspired by the media coverage of Briggs's plight, state Representative Harold Dutton, a Houston Democrat, had drafted a bill to limit jail time for civil contempt to 18 months. When George and Skaddon realized it would apply only to new cases, they helped him redraft it.

The bill breezed through the House and Senate. Baker and his clients never even knew it was pending. Neither did Zbranek.

When Governor Rick Perry signed the bill in May 2003, George was relieved. The next day, he filed the motion to let Briggs out.

Zbranek was annoyed. "It's dumb-ass legislation," he says. By then, he'd retired, but his successor, Judge C.T. Hight, also was unimpressed. Hight thought the new law was unconstitutional because it usurped judges' powers, but he said he'd wait for a decision from federal court. (Hight did not return calls for comment.)

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