Small Fish

It's good the narcotics detective in the fake-drugs case got off, and not because it meant he was pure as the driven snow (or chalk dust, as the case may have been).

The danger from the beginning was this: The jury would convict this cop at the bottom of the heap, and then everybody at Dallas City Hall would slap hands and say, "Well, we guess this gives us closure on the fake-drugs scandal." Instead, a federal jury last week found Dallas police Senior Corporal Mark DeLaPaz not guilty of charges that he had lied on arrest warrants in the fake-drugs case in 2001.

People on different sides of this thing agreed the verdict was the opposite of closure: It means rip it open.

In fake drugs, it turned out that Dallas police and the Dallas County district attorney had been sending people to prison on cocaine trafficking charges when in fact the defendants had been framed. Someone had planted big fat bags of ground-up gypsum on them. The gypsum was never properly tested.

DeLaPaz was one of the key detectives who helped make many of these cases, more than 80 of which had to be dismissed. Dozens of people had been falsely imprisoned, their lives mauled. A total of 21 lawsuits against the city are pending. Whoever was responsible for fake drugs did terrible damage to the lives of the victims, the credibility of local law enforcement and the honor of the city. But the jury reeled in its line, saw DeLaPaz on the hook and decided he wasn't a keeper.

There's some major fuzziness in the DeLaPaz acquittal. His very capable attorney, Paul Coggins, argued that DeLaPaz was an honest cop duped by paid confidential informants. According to this scenario, the confidential informants did the fake-dope planting in order to collect $275,000 in snitch fees over a period of months. The cops had no clue.

But there's a problem with that. DeLaPaz wasn't exactly accused of knowing the drugs were fake and not revealing it. That was not the lie alleged. DeLaPaz was accused of swearing he had been present and witnessed actual transactions the government said had never occurred. He was really accused of furthering the conspiracy to frame people by letting the confidential informants run wild and then later backing them up with official lies on documents.

During and immediately after the verdict last week, there were screwy signals from the jury. While they were deliberating, they sent out a note to the judge asking if they had to find DeLaPaz guilty if they believed he had lied. Nobody knows what the judge answered, but she probably told them to go back and re-read the charge and re-read her instructions.

After the verdict, a juror was quoted in The Dallas Morning News saying that even if DeLaPaz had lied in official police reports about the drug cases, " wasn't with some big evil intent to keep some innocent guy in jail."

So exactly where did the juror think Senior Corporal DeLaPaz was trying to send the innocent guys he was accused of lying about on police reports leading to the innocent guys' arrests, indictments, convictions and incarcerations? Sailing school in the Keys? I'd like to see that juror jerked up out of his life, taken from his family and business and shipped off to the Hotel Cornholia in Huntsville for several years, and then ask him for his thoughts on "evil intent."

But it's also possible the jury was just saying, "Not big enough." Maybe they didn't care if DeLaPaz had fudged the warrants. They wanted a bigger fish before they were willing to clean.

In fact, that notion was suggested to me without prompting by two interesting sources--Paul Coggins, who won the day in the DeLaPaz case, and Dallas County District Attorney Bill Hill, who got spattered by a lot of the early dirt in the fake-drugs saga.

Hill said, "I think it was a jury nullification kind of a deal," suggesting the jurors may have smelled the same rat everybody else did--that DeLaPaz was being fed to them as a scapegoat to protect higher-ups. Hill this week appointed a special prosecutor who will investigate that possibility.

Of course, Hill's agency was also culpable. He helped send people to prison on fake drug evidence, too. But Hill's reaction to the scandal was the opposite of the police chief's. Once Hill was convinced what had happened, he instituted aggressive reforms to keep it from happening again. Former police Chief Terrell Bolton denied, obfuscated and misrepresented to the bitter end. Not one damn thing has been done to this day to prevent it from happening again in the police department. So who looks like the author here?

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze