Mr. No Apology

Bill Hill's office helped jail dozens of innocent people, and he's a shoo-in for re-election. Huh?

How can this picture be hard to get? Put yourself in it. You're a kid. You and your little brothers live with your two devoted parents. Your dad is a hard-working guy who owns his own small business. You love your dad. He and your mom are the pillars holding up your universe. His shop, your mom's kitchen, the yard: It's the whole wide world, and you feel safe and good in that world.

Then the government comes and takes him away. They lock him up in prison. In your eyes your dad is a mountain, a reassuring force of dignity. When you see him now in jail and in court, he's trussed up like an animal in the zoo. He and your mom tell you it's all a horrible mistake.

You watch the news on television, and the reporters are telling you that the government lied about your dad, that the police who came and took him away were crooked, that the informant who helped the police was a liar and that the government lawyer who helped the police put your dad in prison knows it's all a lie. But when the government lawyer talks about your dad on TV, he sounds to you as if he still thinks your dad is a bad person.

What do we imagine this does to a childish heart? We know. It breaks the heart. Forever. There is no complete healing from this. What you hope for the child is survival.

I sat recently with the family of Jesus Mejia, a 40-year-old self-employed carburetor mechanic with no prior criminal history who was arrested in May 2001 after police said they had found a king's ransom in cocaine in his 1965 Chevy pickup. He is one of many dozens of people eventually freed from jail and prison in the Dallas "fake drugs" scandal after Dallas Police Chief Terrell Bolton and Dallas District Attorney Bill Hill were forced to admit that the convictions they had bragged of winning had been based on lies.

Bolton and Hill had been making huge cocaine cases against working-class Mexican immigrants, many of whom had no criminal history, based on fake drugs planted on the suspects by informants working for the Dallas Police Department (see Mark Donald's May 2 cover story, "Dirty or Duped?"). They had been putting these people in jail without bothering to test the drugs to see if they were real. And why bother? They did the important test, and the results all came back Mexican.

Bill Hill said last week he was busy and wouldn't meet with me about this issue, but his first assistant, Mike Carnes, told me the district attorney's office had been alerted to the fake-drugs problem and was on the case way before WFAA-Channel 8's Brett Shipp started building a fire under their feet. No one else sees it that way or believes that.

Shipp and Mark Smith, both reporters at Channel 8, and Tim Wyatt at The Dallas Morning News, with help from the rest of the media corps in town and nationally, forced Bolton and Hill against their wills to own up to this horrible scandal. In a column in the February 18 issue of American Lawyer, former U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins cited the work of Shipp, Smith, Wyatt et. al. in the Dallas fake-drugs case and said in this instance reporters were the "only protection against a criminal justice system gone mad."

I asked Yesenia Mejia, 12, and her brother Jesus, 9, to tell me what was in their hearts while their father was in jail. They didn't want to. Jesus, who wants to be a midfielder when he grows up, sat screwed around half-backward on his chair, staring at the floor and tracing a pattern on the seat with his finger. Yesenia, obviously a smart kid, folded her arms and stared at her mother with a look that said, "Make him go away." When she looked at me her face was locked in a polite dry-eyed smile.

But eventually things were said, things that perhaps had not been said, stammered fragments, some of them confessional. Yesenia looked past me, her face crumpling, and said to her father, "I didn't get to see my dad for five months. I could go visit him, but I didn't want to go." She stopped, maybe surprised by her own words. Then, sobbing, she said: "I didn't want to see my dad like that."

The little boy muttered that he had been sad. Then he turned his face to the floor and whispered something else. I asked him to repeat it, but he was silent. I looked at Maria, his mother. She told him to speak up. This time he looked directly at me, eyes flashing, jaw set. "And I was mad."

I asked the father, Jesus, who came here in 1980 with pesos in his pocket, what he had thought about in jail. He said, "That we would lose everything, the house, the shop, all of it."

Maria told me that none of this was the really hard part for the family. "The hardest part is making people believe it is true that he is innocent."

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