Civil Rights, Judicial Bias Surround Texas Drug Case

A legal drama has been playing out for almost three years in the Texas town of Clarksville of Red River County.

During that time, two black brothers have seen their lives turned upside down, and a white judge was recused from the case after allegations of judicial bias and criticism for pushing a drug case that just about everyone urged him to drop.

Statue of Col. John C. Burks i i

hide captionA large statue of a Confederate soldier, Col. John C. Burks, stands in the town square of Clarksville, Texas, where brothers Vergil and Mark Richardson grew up.

Dreanna Belden/UNT Libraries
Statue of Col. John C. Burks

A large statue of a Confederate soldier, Col. John C. Burks, stands in the town square of Clarksville, Texas, where brothers Vergil and Mark Richardson grew up.

Dreanna Belden/UNT Libraries

Clarksville, Texas

Clarksville was one of the first places settled in the state of Texas. After 190 years since its founding, the town of 3,200 retains a slightly dilapidated Southern charm.

In the town square stands a large statue of a Confederate soldier, Col. John C. Burks. What's strange is that the statue is not facing east toward Murfreesboro, Tenn., where Burks and many other locals lost their lives charging a Union battery. Nor is it facing south in honor of Burks' beloved Confederacy.

The Confederate colonel faces northwest, as if looking toward Idaho. But the way Vergil Richardson sees it, the statue is actually keeping an eye on the town's black neighborhood.

Richardson grew up in Clarksville. He led the local high school's basketball team to two state championship games and eventually came back to coach the team. He says that since the days of Reconstruction, the Confederate officer has been sending a quiet message from Clarksville's white community to its black community.

"The message is whatever you do I'm watching and they are," Richardson says.

'Cops Everywhere'

Three blocks south from Clarksville's town square on South Columbia Street is Richardson's two-bedroom house. As Thanksgiving approached in 2007, six members of the Richardson family, including two brothers — Vergil, now 40, and Mark, 38 — had gathered to celebrate. They did not know it, but the Richardsons were being watched — not by Col. Burks but by Clarksville law enforcement.

Reporter's Notebook

NPR's Wade Goodwyn reflects on an interview with the Richardson brothers on the sidewalk behind their former high school in Clarksville, Texas, and the lasting legacy of racial tension in East Texas.

As 10:30 p.m. approached, a few family members were playing dominoes and watching TV, while others had already gone to bed. Suddenly, the police burst through the door without knocking.

"They [were] screaming, yelling, telling [us to] get on the floor, cursing us out," Vergil says.

Mark Richardson sits on the steps of a courthouse in Texas.

hide captionMark Richardson sits on the steps of a courthouse in Texas. Richardson and his brother Vergil were charged in a 2007 drug case and have since filed a civil rights lawsuit against the local district attorney, sheriff and police chief.

Courtesy of Lesher & Associates

The high school coach had never been in trouble, hadn't even had a traffic ticket.

"I was very scared, didn't know what to do. I looked up because I know some of them. The prosecutor, he was there with a gun in his hand," Vergil recalls.

Meanwhile, Vergil's brother Mark was sitting in a car outside the house talking to a friend.

"And I looked [and said], 'Oh my God! Look, it's cops everywhere!' And they did not see us. And I was like, 'We better get out.' She was like, 'No, let's stay in here,' " Mark says.

Mark and his friend did get out of the car and were immediately handcuffed. He says law enforcement officers screamed at his friend as she stood there bewildered. "You know where the drugs are! We're going to put you up under the jailhouse," Mark recalls the officers yelling at his friend.

The Sale

Earlier in the day, 25-year-old Kevin Calloway, Vergil and Mark's half-brother, had sold a bag of marijuana to a police informant. Calloway was a student at nearby Paris Junior College, and Vergil was letting him stay in his Clarksville house. As Vergil stood handcuffed in the kitchen, the sheriff explained the situation.

"[The sheriff] said, '[Calloway's] been selling drugs out of your house.' And I said, 'Well, if you [had] told me that, I would have kicked him out,' " Vergil recounts.

Vergil asked to see the search warrant. The question seemed to take the sheriff by surprise.

Bias On The Bench

Judge John Miller

hide captionJudge John Miller of the 102nd District Court, Texas

Courtesy of Bowie County Website/co.bowie.tx.us

"Every turn has suggested that [Judge Miller] refuses to consider [their innocence] a possibility." — Clyde Lee, an attorney for the Richardsons

Read This And Other Excerpts of Judge John Miller's recusal hearing.

"He said, 'Yeah, [I'm going] to let you see it.' And I asked him again, you know, right after that, and he said, '[I'm going] to let you see it.' And I said, 'Well, OK. Please let me see it,' " Vergil says.

According to Vergil, the sheriff finally pulled out of his front pocket a white piece of paper about the size of a receipt, flashed it in his direction and quickly stuffed it back in his pocket. He then yelled at the officers, "Get these guys out of here!"

In a police interrogation room a few hours later, Kevin Calloway confessed to the sheriff that he kept a stash of marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine locked in the garden shed in the backyard. There was just one key to the lock, and Calloway kept it in his pocket.

On the interrogation room videotape, Calloway sits, elbows on his knees, dejectedly looking at the floor. The sheriff asks him again and again, "Did the others know what you were doing?" Calloway says eight different times during the interview that the drugs belonged to him, and his brothers did not know he was dealing.

Hiring Lawyers

Despite Calloway's confession, the other five members of the Richardson family present that night were charged with manufacture of a controlled substance, intent to distribute and organized crime. They all faced life in prison and suffered the consequence of being suspected drug dealers.

High school head basketball coach Vergil Richardson was fired immediately. Although the family was stunned, the Richardsons were not penniless. They hired well-known East Texas trial attorney Mark Lesher, whose first order of business was to get District Attorney Val Varley off the case. Varley was with the police when they broke down the door.

"Not only is he dressed up — he's got a flak jacket on and an assault rifle. He's part of the raid," Lesher says.

Val Varley declined to speak to NPR about the case. But his decision to participate in the raid ended up having far-reaching consequences. By making himself a witness to the arrests and the gathering of evidence, Varley eventually had to step aside from prosecuting the case. So the judge in Clarksville, John Miller, asked the state attorney general's office to prosecute it.

Famous Texas Law Enforcement Discrimination Cases

Tulia, Texas: In the summer of 1999, 46 people were arrested in a drug sting in the tiny town of Tulia, population 5,000. Most of those arrested were African-American. All of the arrests were based entirely on the word of a single undercover deputy police officer, Tom Coleman, who had been charged with stealing thousands of dollars of merchandise at his previous job in another Texas county. When Tulia authorities discovered Coleman's criminal charges, they hid the fact so as not to jeopardize the drug prosecutions. The defendants were sentenced to as long as 99-year prison terms for selling cocaine. Coleman's lies about the drug deals were eventually exposed and discredited, and the convicted Tulians were pardoned and released from Texas prisons. But the town remains scarred by the experience.

Hearne, Texas: The story of Regina Kelly, a young black mother of four in Hearne, Texas, inspired an award-winning Hollywood movie called American Violet. Kelly was among 27 residents — all but one of whom were black — arrested for selling cocaine in the fall of 2000. The charges were based upon the testimony of a single informant, who framed the victims by scraping bits of his own stash of crack cocaine into white chalk so that it would test positive. Still, several defendants pleaded guilty in return for probation to avoid the possibility of a long prison sentence. The ACLU filed suit against the local district attorney and the South Central Texas Narcotics Task Force for conducting repeated racially motivated raids. The suit was eventually settled and the criminal charges dismissed against those who had not already pleaded guilty.

Dallas Fake Drug Scandal: Initially celebrated as the largest drug bust in Dallas County history, the case ultimately led to the dismissal of more than 80 drug cases after a story broken by WFAA-TV. Like the Hearne case, these drug cases were based on the testimony of police informants. But in Dallas, the targets were Mexican immigrants, many of whom were working as auto mechanics or day laborers. Despite their modest jobs, these defendants were accused of dealing huge amounts of cocaine. One man was charged with having more than 176 pounds of the high-priced drug. But the cocaine found was actually powdered sheet rock that had been planted by police informants who were conspiring with Dallas narcotics officers to frame the defendants. Drug-buy money went missing. Six police officers were implicated; three informants and two officers were eventually convicted in the scandal; and the Dallas district attorney’s office was accused of prosecuting drug cases it knew were bad.

— Wade Goodwyn

Questions About The Case

The state prosecutors quickly became wary of the Clarksville case. One problem was that it appeared the search warrant had been issued after the raid — after Vergil Richardson had repeatedly asked the sheriff if he could see it.

"[In] three different sections in the discovery, [it] stated that the search started at approximately 10:30 [p.m.]. And the search warrant was signed at 10:49 [p.m.]. And the search was conducted before the search warrant was signed. It's just illegal, period," Lesher says.

The search warrant issue potentially compromised the drug evidence found in the shed.

Shock Waves Through The Courthouse

Lesher, the trail lawyer, sent a shock wave through the small Red River County courthouse when, on behalf of the Richardson brothers, he filed a $2 million civil rights lawsuit against the district attorney, the sheriff and the Clarksville police chief, all of whom participated in the raid.

Then the news got even worse for Red River County. The attorney general's office told Miller that the prosecutors were going to dismiss the charges against the Richardson family, with the exception of Kevin Calloway, who had already confessed. Prosecutors wrote the judge that they were dismissing the charges "in the interest of justice."

But the judge in the case made it clear to both the prosecutors and the defense lawyers that he had no intention of backing off.

"A judge can sit a case, but the judge can't force that case to trial. I've never seen a motion to dismiss signed and executed by the [district attorney] that's never been signed by the judge. It's always just pro forma," Lesher says.

State Judge John Miller refused to accept the attorney general's decision to drop the case. The ruling was so unusual that it lifted legal heads around the state.

But the judge was just getting started. He told defense lawyers that he intended to replace the attorney general's office and appoint a new special prosecutor, someone who would agree to prosecute all of the members of the Richardson family, not just their half-brother Calloway.

Outside The Courtroom

The judge approached one of Vergil Richardson's defense lawyers and asked him to step into a deserted jury room. As Clyde Lee recalls, Miller told him that he wanted to cut a deal.

According to Lee, Miller offered a quid pro quo: If Vergil would dismiss his civil rights lawsuit, then the judge, in return, would dismiss the criminal charges.

But Vergil refused, and a few weeks later, the judge offered a different deal.

"[Miller] then got real specific in saying that my client should testify against the other co-defendants with respect to their drug activity and what he knew had to be true," Lee says.

Vergil Richardson (center)

hide captionHead coach Vergil Richardson (center) poses with his high school basketball team in Texarkana, Texas. After being charged in a drug case in 2007, Richardson lost his job.

Courtesy of Vergil Richardson

While it is standard for prosecutors and defense lawyers to negotiate plea deals, that is not usually the judge's role. Miller did not respond to repeated requests by NPR for comment.

A History Of Not Following The Book

The question remains: Why would a judge insert himself so provocatively into a case?

Bill Hankins, a reporter for The Paris News in nearby Paris, Texas, who has been covering the story closely, thinks this case is about more than just race.

"You know, [Red River County] is a poor county ... and I think ... [Miller is] concerned about the lawsuit eating up funds that they don't have," he says.

As for the repeated overtures from the judge to defense lawyer Lee outside of court, Hankins says it has to be understood in the context of a small town.

"I'm going to say that it has been done many times before, but it is not the proper way to do it. And I'm going to say that Red River County has a history of doing things probably in ways that don't follow the book," Hankins says.

The Nightmare Ends

In Hankins' view, the Richardsons are actually bit players in their own drama. The leading roles go to the two powerful political interests in the white community — the district attorney and judge on one side, and the trial lawyers on the other.

If Hankins' theory is true, the trial lawyers began to gain the upper hand after Lesher filed a motion to remove Miller from the case, alleging bias. And in a case of unlikely allies, state prosecutors supported the defendants' request to recuse the judge.

No dismissal hearing was held after a new judge was appointed. Instead, the new judge told the Texas attorney general's office to mail him the motions to dismiss, which he signed recently.

The Richardson's three-year nightmare was finally over. But scars still remain.

"I told my wife that I might need to go see a psychiatrist," Mark says, "because every time a cop gets behind me, they'll run my license plate. They [are] going to stop me, because those charges will show up."

Picking Up The Pieces

Like his brother Vergil, Mark Richardson had never been in trouble with the law. He had always thought African-Americans in East Texas exaggerated when they told stories about local law enforcement. He's a different man now.

Asked if he thinks what happened to him and his brother is related to their being black, Mark says yes, he thinks so.

"And that's so sad, because I didn't really believe that at first," Mark says. "That's why it's so hard for me to say that, but it's true: They don't like blacks."

It will take time for the Richardsons to get their lives back. Vergil hopes to once again coach high school basketball. Two years after he was fired, his team went on to win the state championship without him. As for Mark, he would like to sell the house in Clarksville and put his hometown in his rearview mirror.

The Richardsons' civil rights lawsuit against the Red River County district attorney, the sheriff and the chief of police begins early next year.

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