Friday, November 5, 2010

Been So Torn Down

Back in May, I wrote about Vergil Richardson and Nicole Habersang and what happened in Red River County, Texas.
Ms. Habersang is an attorney in the Criminal Prosecutions Division of the Texas Attorney General's office.  She was assigned to the prosecution of Vergil Richardson.  Vergil was charged with drug possession after the local SWAT team broke down the door of a house he owned but did not live in (Kevin Callaway, Vergil's half-brother, lived there).

In any event, the SWAT team broke down the door, shot the dog (oops, wrong story, that was Missouri) searched the place, found what they say are drugs, and arrested everyone present including Vergil and his brother Mark who happened to be at the house at the time.  Both said they didn't know anything about the drugs, but hey, we know suspect are all guilty or they wouldn't be suspects, so who was gonna believe them?). And because there just isn't that much fun stuff to do in Red River County, the local prosecutor, Val Varley, went along on the raid waving a gun around.  Which makes him a witness, which is a no-no for a lawyer who wants to try a case.  So Varley removed himself and asked the Attorney General to appoint someone to prosecute.
Which is where Habersang came in.  She studied the evidence and concluded that there wasn't any.  Vergil and Mark and several of the others arrested (at some point Callaway entered a plea) were, plainly and simply, innocent.  No two ways about it.  So, in a move that surely endeared her to no prosecutor anywhere, Habersang asked the judge to dismiss the charges because the defendants were innocent.
Now, in the ordinary course of things, you'd think that would be that.  Case dismissed.  Everyone gets to go home.
The ordinary course of things, however, doesn't get much play in Red River County.  Judge John Miller refused.  The interests of justice, he said, demanded that Vergil stand trial despite the fact that he was innocent.
So that's the story I told on May 16, praising the hell out of Nicole Habersang and heaping scorn on that judge.
Then I heard from Vergil.  He posted this comment.
I been strip of my reputation,strip of my dignity, strip of my pride,and left penniless all because the color of my skin.I need somebody to help me. 
Now, that's a different story.  That's the human side.  Because these legal antics have real world legal consequences.  So the next day, I wrote this.
Criminal cases aren't about abstract notions like Justice or Fairness or Constitutional Rights.  Oh, we talk about them that way sometimes.  And all of us involved in these cases - criminal defense lawyers but also prosecutors, judges, and even cops - occasionally let ourselves believe we're on the side of the angels (for some of us those occasions arise more than others, and some come closer to deserving the belief, but that's for another post).

But that ain't what's real.
What's real is Vergil Richardson.  A poor man who's been battered by charges of a crime he didn't commit. Win, lose, or draw, Vergil suffers.  His family suffers.  His friends suffer.  There's satisfaction of a sort in an acquittal or dismissal, but there's no going back.  The criminal charge is a loss.  It has consequences all by itself.  And they can be devastating.
And then, maybe because I was busy working on my own cases, maybe because I got sidetracked by the Sharon Keller saga or more curiosity in Maricopa County, maybe because I was caught up in some other outrage, maybe because I just didn't pay attention, I lost track.
I shouldn't have.
Vergil and his brother Mark asked to have Judge Miller removed from the case because of his obvious bias.  They said that Miller was holding the Richardson's hostage (that's my language, not theirs as far as I know) because he wanted them to dismiss the civil lawsuit they had brought against the prosecutor and the cops for violating their constitutional rights.
On August 23, District Judge John McGraw, Jr. took Miller off the cases of Vergil and Mark and two others of their brothers.  In his place, McGraw appointed Robert Mohoney, a retired judge, to oversee the cases. 
On October 8, he dismissed the charges. With prejudice.  From behind a paywall at the Texarcana Gazette, but reproduced on the blog of Friends of Justice.
“Justice has finally been served,” Mark Richardson said. “We’ve been through so much humiliation and embarrassment.”

Vergil Richardson has not been able to work as a coach since his arrest.

"I’m looking forward to getting my life back,” he said. “I’ve been so torn down.”
Now, let's pause a moment.  Mark's wrong.  Whatever justice might be, it's hard to see it's hand in this.  Plenty of injustice, God knows.  And a few people acting with honor and commitment.  But justice?  I don't see that undoing evil gets that free pass.  Those three years of hell, the loss of liberty.
strip of my reputation,strip of my dignity, strip of my pride,and left penniless all because the color of my skin.
And now they say, "Sorry, pal."
Ain't no justice there.  Though it's surely a good thing.
We'll give the last word to Vergil, who thanks a god in whom I don't believe.  But he's entitled.
I sit back and think about when all this happened, and i question myself how in the world we made it through this and i must say God is good. The Lord placed people in my life that i can really call friends. 
Mark & Vergil Richardson

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