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.

Explain this to your kids: Jesus and Maria Mejia with their children, Jesus, David and Yesenia (from left to right)
Mark Graham
Explain this to your kids: Jesus and Maria Mejia with their children, Jesus, David and Yesenia (from left to right)

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."

Carnes, Hill's first assistant, gave me his scenario of how the cases have been handled, and I have to say it was the scenario and the philosophy I have heard in much of Dallas since these cases first began coming to light at the end of last year: It happens. The system's not perfect. Everybody screwed up. Nobody meant to. We did what we could.

That certainly has been the line from Chief Bolton, whose out-of-control police department made these cases in the first place. He says the fact that the informants behind the fake-drug arrests got caught proves that "the system works." Tell that to Jesus Mejia's kids, chief.

But, look: Bolton is a police bureaucrat. Nobody elected him. He's going to hang on to his job any way he can. The response from much of the rest of the community has been just as desultory and callous. The plight of the victims in these cases has evoked barely a word from the man running against Hill for district attorney in next Tuesday's election, Craig Watkins, heir to the Dallas NAACP fortune (the only civil rights group in America that only makes the news when somebody makes off with the dues). Watkins is either too timid to have touched him on this issue, too much of a cipher or too interested in getting hired by Hill after he gets his butt whupped by him.

Of course, the people who got screwed were Mexican, weren't they? So why would anybody associated with the NAACP give a rat's ass? It's not the damn NAAMP.

More to the point, what about those Latino leaders? Months into this thing, Domingo Garcia, a rich lawyer who grew up in the suburbs, and John Loza, a lawyer on the city council who went to St. Mark's, an exclusive private school, held a news conference in which they suggested--fairly mildly, I thought--that maybe the cops and the district attorney shouldn't be destroying the lives of innocent immigrants from Central Mexico by sending them up on fake drug charges. Hill lambasted them: He said the particular person they used as an example, Jaime Chavez, had been busted with real drugs. Garcia and Loza fell all over themselves apologizing to Hill, because they hadn't known real drugs had been involved in the Chavez case.

Barely a week later, the police informant in the fake-drugs case signed a statement saying he had lied about Chavez's involvement with real drugs. Makes sense, eh? Willing to lie about fake drugs, maybe also willing to lie about real drugs. Otherwise known as: liar.

But that was it from Garcia and Loza. They had exhausted their outrage. And what do we expect, anyway, from people whose idea of a civil rights action is a news conference?

Where this all brings us is back to the one man in this picture who did get elected to the position he now occupies, and whose stature, therefore, could have made a moral and political difference. Bill Hill.

At any point in this now year-long agony of public corruption and official persecution, Bill Hill could have gone before the public and said, "These people were innocent victims. They did nothing wrong. My heart goes out to them. I am deeply concerned that these cases may point to ethical and moral lapses in my department and in the Dallas Police Department, and I am actively seeking to settle that question. People in the community should not believe that these people are guilty of crimes because of what has been done to them. These people were and are innocent."

I think I see at least one important reason for Hill's reluctance to do that. The victims in these cases are political nonentities, poor and working-class immigrants from Guanajuato and beyond who don't vote, who barely speak English and who can do him no harm politically.

The other side of this same equation is the Dallas police. I know from a very good source that the Dallas Police Department has been very unhappy over the 80-plus cases that already have been dismissed by Hill in the fake-drugs scandal. That means there are cops in the department so corrupt that they believe it's OK to put people in prison on perjured testimony and that Bill Hill is a wuss for not sticking with the program.

That's the voice Hill is listening to. He won't apologize, and in fact the concessions he is forced to make he makes in the most grudging tones possible, because he wants to keep faith with the slimeballs in the police department who were behind all this.

In my conversation with Carnes, the point he made over and over again was that Hill called in the FBI to investigate his own department and the police department. The suggestion was that the ongoing FBI/Department of Justice probe will reveal all secrets. In the meantime, Carnes said, Hill has to be careful not to say things that might compromise that investigation.

Like, "I'm sorry?"

In my meeting with Carnes in his office, I said several times that I really needed to talk to Hill, not him, no offense, because I was writing about this very personal issue of Hill's empathy or lack thereof for the victims. At the end of that day, I received this one-paragraph fax:

"Statement of Bill Hill in regards to the question concerning sympathy for victims.

"Date: 10/25/02

"I am very sorry for anyone who fell victim to these unscrupulous and corrupt confidential informants. Since that time we have put safeguards in place to ensure that we will never be duped again by confidential informants and/or police officers who are willing to use fake drugs to charge innocent people with narcotics violations."

Put that to music, get a couple of violins and a harp, and I believe you'd still have a grudging one-paragraph fax.

I talked to former U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins about the FBI probe. He said Hill knows full well that there is almost no likelihood the Department of Justice will come up with federally prosecutable offenses, a least in Hill's own department. "The problems are much more likely to be ethical than legal issues," Coggins said.

To find a federally prosecutable offense, the FBI would have to find money going into the pockets of assistant district attorneys. Nobody thinks that happened. The issue is whether Bill Hill's department sponsors a culture in which it is ethically acceptable to prosecute a defendant, including pushing for a plea bargain, on evidence the department knows or suspects to be questionable. Even if the FBI finds that problem, even if they find tons of it, they will not mention a word of it in public because it is not a federal offense to be a slimeball. They will say only that they found no federal offense to prosecute.

It's too bad there is no real candidate to vote for against Hill in next Tuesday's election. Thank the Dallas County Democratic Party for that--the party that has learned to be comfortable with defeat.

Craig Watkins would actually be worse than Hill. But take it from me: Watkins ain't going to win. He's not even going to get within hailing distance.

So every vote you give Watkins is at least a safe vote against Bill Hill. I personally urge you to vote early, vote often and have state Representative Terri Hodge deliver all of your ballots. If you vote for Hill, you will be complicit in a much greater sin.

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