Total Contempt

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

The federal court took a look, then kicked it back to Hight for his ruling. In November, Hight announced he would conduct a hearing.

George told Briggs to bring extra clothes. "We thought they were going to put him back in jail," George says.

Hight asked some basic questions. Did Briggs have the records? No, he said. What had he done with them? Destroyed them, he said.

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.

Then the judge announced that Briggs was free to go. It was no reflection on the new law, just his belief, finally, that Briggs was telling the truth.

At first, no one understood. Briggs, in the witness chair, just stared at the judge. "I thought I was hearing something that wasn't true," he says.

George wondered if it was a trick. "You could have knocked me over with a feather," Skaddon said.

After four years and eight months in jail, then another 18 months of house arrest, Odis Briggs was free.

"It ended not with a bang, but a whisper," George admits.

Briggs is now 65 years old. He gets a small pension from social security. He keeps expenses low by living with his sister.

He doesn't look like the smooth talker who charmed the Lewis family out of their savings, or even someone who could push a judge over the edge. He's soft-spoken, almost reserved in his dark green suit. His only concession to panache is his shoes -- dark green wingtips that match the suit almost too perfectly.

He wears his victim status comfortably. He has a longtime prisoner's extensive legal vocabulary, and he tosses off catchphrases like "constitutional rights" and "due process" easily.

It's harder to get him talking about the Lewises.

He insists he never meant to hurt them. He agreed to work on their claim out of a sense of "community": They were black and he was black. It wasn't about the money -- "There was no money then," he protests. He says he worked on the claim two years, and made some progress. He found old tax records showing the family had once lived on the land, he says, and other documents that he couldn't understand, but that looked promising.

His only crime, he says, was spending the money designated for Craig Washington. "My intentions was good. I had integrity. It just didn't end up happening."

In the late '80s, he says, he found God. He has a hard time explaining why he kept stalling and stringing along the family for years after that. Or why he didn't apologize. "At the time we was all in litigation," he explains. "I had been advised not even to contact them."

Nor does he have a simple answer for why he doesn't apologize today. So he begins to apologize. "I don't know if this is the appropriate time to go into this now," he says a bit nervously, but then catches his stride. "To those whose lives were affected directly or indirectly, I admit and accept full responsibility for any improper behavior…I know that being sorry is not enough, but that's all I can offer. I deeply regret that I have filled you with so much hardship and grief."

For a moment, it's easy to understand how the descendants of Henry Lewis believed his protestations for so long. He says the right things, eloquently, and he sounds sincere.

Then he gets started on his legal case. He is angry at George W. Bush, because when Jackson's people called him, Bush did nothing. "I asked for help, but no one came to my aid," he says. "The only option I had was the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition."

He shrugs off the work of the ACLU. That came later, he says. He's talking about the months where his wife died. "I'd been married 37-plus years, and I couldn't even attend her funeral," he says. "I'm appealing to John Ashcroft. I want him to investigate the Liberty County courts. The corruption, law practice, conspiracy, malfeasance, practice of buddy-buddy kinfolk. Many other people have experienced this in Liberty County."

He's getting fired up. "I'm not angry with no one at this stage, but I was very mad when I was in jail…I lost my job, my health insurance, my life insurance, I lost my wife, I lost everything. It was a gross miscarriage of justice." He has more to say, but it all starts to sound the same. He even suggests a headline for this story: "Justice Denied." "Because my justice was denied," he says. He says nothing about justice for the Lewis family.

He calls back an hour later. He's been thinking about his apology, and he has a question. "My incarceration was illegal," he says. "Who's going to apologize to me?"

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