Longform

Dirty or Duped?

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Because the Dallas County District Attorney's Office had a policy that no drugs would be analyzed by its forensic lab unless the case was going to trial, any defendant unwilling to risk a jury verdict and long sentence would never know if the drugs he had just pleaded guilty to selling were, in fact, drugs. The only forensic evidence that he possessed a controlled substance would be a simple field test that was never intended by its manufacturer to resolve the issue of guilt or innocence.

That no one had earlier snapped to this systemic problem either spoke volumes about the purity of drugs that plague our city streets or the number of people who have been wrongfully convicted because they chose to settle for a lighter sentence. But in August, when several Dallas defense attorneys--Cynthia Barbare and C. Tony Wright the most vociferous among them--began comparing notes, seeing "red flags" and sloppy police work in bust after questionable bust, they demanded the drugs be analyzed.

Lab results from at least 20 multi-kilo cases--two of them the largest busts in the history of Dallas police--revealed defendants possessed either tiny amounts of cocaine or no drugs at all. The common threads linking these defendants together were Officers DeLaPaz and Herrera, their confidential informant Enrique Martinez-Alonso and the large quantities of gypsum they seized as a result of the information he provided. Police records show that Alonso was DPD's highest-paid informant in 2001, earning more than $210,000 for the seizure of nearly 1,000 pounds of cocaine and amphetamines, all of which turned out to be bogus. No other Texas city was as generous with its informants. In early October, attorney Wright filed a motion that alleged: "It appears the district attorney's office is covering up either a dirty snitch or dirty police officers."

Neither would bode well for District Attorney Bill Hill, who was facing a serious challenge from his own Republican Party as he prepared to run for re-election. A narcotics scandal under the watch of police Chief Terrell Bolton would do little to advance his shaky standing with his critics at City Hall, chief among them Laura Miller, who was lining up support for her successful mayoral run from those who saw Bolton as an embarrassment to the department. With the media smelling blood, particularly WFAA-TV's investigative reporter Brett Shipp and his producer Mark Smith, who were tipped to the story, all the players were in place for a public corruption scandal the likes of which Dallas has never known.

Small wonder Hill called in the FBI and Bolton called in the DEA--the integrity of both their offices was at stake. By March, Hill had dismissed nearly 70 cases involving the two narcotics officers and at least four of their informants. Bolton placed both officers on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an FBI investigation and implemented a review of narcotics division procedures. Other than a series of briefings to the media and city council, the department has attempted to shut down the release of information regarding its own investigation, which is now on hold. And the FBI historically never discusses pending investigations, so official confirmation of hard evidence is sketchy at best. But the local press has been so tenacious in its pursuit of this story that it keeps breaking news despite the media blackout.

What is as yet unknown is whether Officers DeLaPaz and Herrera were duped or dirty, conspirators in a scheme to frame innocent defendants or flat-out fooled by a nest of snitches with the street smarts to figure out the vulnerabilities of the legal system. If they were duped, shouldn't they have been suspicious of the glut of sizable busts generated by a lone informant, or were they blinded by their unprecedented success, trusting to the point of being reckless about the way they conducted their undercover operations? In court documents, both officers have denied any complicity and claimed they were just doing their jobs. Either scenario raises the question: How could this have happened?

Consider the slack supervision of these undercover officers, their push for numbers, their willingness to cut corners, their indifferent acceptance of implausible information provided by their informant; consider a district attorney's office that was dilatory in fixing the problem, that may have withheld exculpatory evidence and made the best of dubious cases by pleading them to lesser charges; consider a legal system that places a frightening amount of police power in the hands of known criminals--confidential informants--a system that resents correcting itself even after it has callously placed innocent people behind bars, and the answer becomes obvious: What happened was inevitable.

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald