By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Hearne, Texas, is a long way from Hollywood, California. Situated on State Highway 6 about 120 miles northwest of Houston, Hearne, with a population of just over 5,000, is the largest city in Robertson County. It is an area that is less than vibrant economically. Those who own the gently rolling hills try to eke out a living working the land. Most of the rest commute to Waco or the Bryan-College Station area for work.
Despite the sleepy nature of the city, Hearne residents say that last November their town could have been mistaken for an action-adventure movie set when members of the South Central Narcotics Task Force began rounding up alleged drug dealers and users in the community. As police vehicles sped through the streets, task force members even called in a chopper for aerial surveillance.
In all, 28 people were arrested. Most were black, and many were residents of Columbus Village, a federally subsidized low-income housing project located in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in east Hearne, just down the street from an elementary school. Both the school and the housing project are, by law, drug-free zones. That means that penalties for drug-related crimes committed in those areas are automatically enhanced.
At first, the arrests were not that alarming to Hearne residents, who had watched passively as the busts occurred every year since the late 1980s, when task forces and the Byrne Fund first came into being. But then the numbers started piling up: From October 1998 to December 2000, according to records obtained by the Houston Press, the Dallas Observer's sister paper, the eight-member South Central task force filed 574 charges, although some defendants were charged more than once. The task force's records are poorly kept, but of the suspects who had a race attached to their names, 257 out of 364 were African-Americans. Only 34 of the cases involved more than 4 grams of cocaine or crack. The task force made three major seizures during this period: 4.16 pounds of cocaine, 90 grams of methamphetamine and 312 pounds of marijuana. South Central's budget for this period was $972,238; if you divide that figure by the number of charges filed, it comes out to $1,694 per charge. At the same time, the task force members were paid an average of nearly $36,000 annually.
"Every year they just round up a bunch of black men and women," says Charles Workman, who is a member of the Hearne City Council as well as president of the area chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"If you've got gold teeth, you're fit to profile," says hospital administrator Helen Boone.
While the annual raids were familiar to Workman and Boone, last November's police action caught the attention of both parents, since each had a son arrested during the roundup and charged with delivery of a controlled substance.
"I guess in the past it's been pretty easy for them to get away with this, because blacks are easy prey," says Workman, a slow-talking man who chooses his words carefully. "Automatically, if you arrest a black kid, everybody says he's guilty, and nobody asks any questions. Blacks don't have any money to get lawyers, so it's easy to get them and send them off to prison. No problem. And they've been doing it for about 15 years."
So Workman decided to do something about it. He decided to fight. Rather, he hired someone to fight for him: Brad Wyatt, a Bryan-based attorney who looks like the redheaded, freckle-faced good ol' boy next door. As Wyatt investigated, he began to see similarities in many of the 28 arrests from that November bust. Most of those arrested were black, most were poor, and most lived at the Columbus Village housing project. Additionally, Wyatt says that although the crimes were alleged to have taken place seven months earlier in April, some of the defendants had solid alibis, including his client Corvian Workman.
"It just so happened that my client, at the time of this alleged drug deal, was at his grandmother's house with about 40 family members in attendance for a birthday party," Wyatt says. "Corvie was actually cooking chicken-fried steak at the party."
Perhaps most significant was the fact that the younger Workman and many of the others arrested had been fingered on the word of an undercover informant, 27-year-old Derrick Megress, who was already on probation for burglary and unauthorized use of a motor vehicle. He is also an admitted former drug dealer. To avoid jail time, Megress testified, he signed an agreement with the Robertson County District Attorney's Office--headed by District Attorney John Paschall, who was also in charge of the task force--to produce 20 drug arrests. In addition to his freedom, Megress also earned $100 for each person he helped bust.
During Workman's trial, under questioning by Wyatt, Megress admitted that he had violated the terms of his agreement with the district attorney's office by using drugs while working as an informant. Wyatt also was able to show that, in violation of task force protocol, Megress had not been in plain view of a task force member during the alleged drug buys. Additionally, Wyatt pointed out that Megress' wife lived at the housing project. He theorized that Megress, once out of sight of task force officers, was able to slip into his wife's home, retrieve drugs he had already stashed there and then bring them back to the officers with the story that he had purchased them from a Columbus Village resident. Wyatt knew it would not be easy to sell his theory to a small-town jury.