MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Melissa Block.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
And Im Mary Louise Kelly.
We have a story now about small-town justice. For more than two years, a legal drama has been playing out in Clarksville, Texas. In that time, two brothers have seen their lives turned upside down. And a longtime local judge has suffered his own reversals for pushing a case that just about everyone urged him to drop.
NPR's Wade Goodwyn takes us to the evening that started it all.
WADE GOODWYN: Clarksville was one of the first places settled in the state of Texas. One hundred and ninety years after it came into existence, the town of 3,200 retains a slightly dilapidated Southern charm.
In the town square stands a large statue of a Confederate soldier. What's strange is that the statue is not facing east toward Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where Colonel John Burks and many other locals lost their lives charging a Union battery. Nor is he facing south in honor of his beloved Confederacy.
The Confederate colonel is facing northwest, like toward Idaho.
Mr. VERGIL RICHARDSON (Basketball Coach, Clarksville High School): Actually, he's facing the black neighborhood of Clarksville.
GOODWYN: Thirty-eight-year-old Vergil Richardson grew up in Clarksville, led Clarksville High to two state championship basketball 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.
Mr. RICHARDSON: The message is whatever you do I'm watching, and they are.
GOODWYN: Three blocks south, on South Columbia Street, is Richardson's two-bedroom house. As Thanksgiving approached in 2007, six members of the Richardson family, including two brothers - 38-year-old Mark and 35-year-old Vergil - had gathered to celebrate. They didn't know it, but they were being watched not by Colonel Burks but by Clarksville law enforcement.
As 10:30 p.m. approached, the police burst through the door without knocking.
Mr. RICHARDSON: They was screaming, yelling, telling us get on the floor; cursing us out.
GOODWYN: The high school coach had never been in trouble, not even a traffic ticket.
Mr. RICHARDSON: 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.
GOODWYN: At that moment, Vergil's brother Mark was sitting in a car outside the house talking to a friend.
Mr. MARK RICHARDSON: And I looked off, 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.
GOODWYN: 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 unoccupied Clarksville house, while Vergil coached in nearby Texarkana.
Virgil, who stood handcuffed in his kitchen, asked to see the search warrant. The question seemed to take the sheriff by surprise.
Mr. RICHARDSON: He told me, he said, yeah, Im going to let you see it. And I asked him again, you know, right after that. And he said, Im going to let you see it. And I said, well, okay, please let me see it.
GOODWYN: Vergil says the sheriff finally pulled out of his front pocket a white piece of paper 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.
Unidentified Man: Is there anything else you want to add to that?
Mr. KEVIN CALLOWAY: Thats pretty much it.
Unidentified Man: So the...
GOODWYN: In the 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.
Calloway told the sheriff repeatedly that the drugs were all his and that nobody else in the family had any idea he was dealing. Despite Calloway's confession, the other five members of the Richardson family present that night were also charged with manufacture, intent to distribute and organized crime.
They faced life in prison and suffered the consequence of being suspected drug dealers. Vergil Richardson, who was the head basketball coach of the high school in Texarkana, was fired immediately. Although the family was stunned, the Richardson brothers were not penniless.
They hired well-known East Texas trial attorney Mark Lesher. And Lesher's first order of business was to get the district attorney, Val Varley, off the case. Thats because Varley was with the police when they broke down the door.
Thats because Varley was with the police when they broke down the door.
Mr. MARK LESHER (Defense Attorney): Not only is he dressed up, he's got a flak jacket on and an assault rifle. He's part of the raid.
GOODWYN: Varley declined to speak to NPR about the case. But the D.A.'s 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.
So the judge in Clarksville, John Miller, asked the state attorney general's office to prosecute the case. But state prosecutors became wary. 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.
Mr. LESHER: On three different sections in the discovery, it stated that the search started at approximately 10:30. And the search warrant was signed at 10:49. And the search was conducted before the search warrant was signed. It's just illegal - period.
GOODWYN: The search warrant issue potentially compromised the drug evidence found in the shed. Then Mark Lesher, the trail attorney, sent a shockwave through the small Red River County courthouse.
On behalf of the Richardson brothers, he filed a $2 million civil rights lawsuit against the district attorney, the sheriff and the Clarksville chief of police, all of whom participated in the raid.
Then the news got even worse for Red River County. The AG's office told Judge Miller that except for Kevin Calloway, who had already confessed, prosecutors were going to dismiss the charges against the Richardson family.
Prosecutors wrote the judge that they were dismissing the charges, quote, "in the interest of justice." But the judge in the case made it clear to prosecutors and defense lawyers both, that he had no intention of backing off.
Mr. LESHER: 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 D.A., that's never been signed by the judge. It's always just pro forma.
GOODWYN: State Judge John Miller refused to accept the attorney general's decision to drop the case. That ruling was so unusual, it lifted legal heads around the state. But the judge was just getting started.
He told defense lawyers that he was going to replace the attorney general's office and appoint a new special prosecutor; someone who would agree to prosecute all the members of the Richardson family, not just their half-brother.
The judge approached one of Vergil Richardson's defense lawyers and asked him to step into a deserted jury room. Judge Miller told lawyer Clyde Lee that he wanted to cut a deal.
Mr. CLYDE LEE (Defense Attorney): He then started referring to the fact that he still had in his hand the dismissal orders that the attorney general had sent to him, and informed me that he would be more inclined to sign those with respect to Vergil, if Vergil weren't involved in the civil rights lawsuit.
GOODWYN: Less says Miller was offering a quid pro quo. Vergil, the now-former high school basketball coach, would dismiss his civil rights lawsuit, in return the judge would dismiss the criminal charges. But Vergil said no. So a few weeks later, the judge offered a different deal.
Mr. LEE: He 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.
GOODWYN: While it is standard for prosecutors and defense lawyers to negotiate plea deals, that's not usually the judge's role. Judge Miller did not respond to repeated requests by NPR for comment.
But the question remains: Why would a judge insert himself so provocatively into a case?
Bill Hankins is a reporter for The Paris News in nearby Paris, Texas. He's covered the story more closely than any other. Hankins believes this is about more than just race.
Mr. BILL HANKINS (Reporter, The Paris News): This is a poor county, Red River County. And I think - now, this is my opinion - but I think he's concerned about the lawsuit eating up funds that they don't have.
GOODWYN: As for the repeated overtures from Judge Miller to defense lawyer Clyde Lee - outside the confines of court - Hankins says it has to be understood in the context of a small town.
Mr. HANKINS: 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.
GOODWYN: 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 judge and D.A. on one side, and the high-profile trial lawyers on the other.
If that's true, at this point, the trial lawyers began to gain the upper hand. Alleging judicial bias, they requested Judge Miller be removed. And in a case of unlikely allies, state prosecutors supported the defendants' request to recuse to Judge Miller.
When a new judge was appointed, that judge didnt even bother to hold a dismissal hearing. He told the Texas Attorney General's Office to mail him its motions to dismiss, and last month he signed them.
And, oh so quietly, the Richardson's three-year nightmare was over. But for them, it's not really over.
Mr. MARK RICHARDSON: I had said the other day, I told my wife that I might need to go see a psychiatrist because every time a cop get behind me, they'll run my license plate, they're going to stop me because those charges will show up.
GOODWYN: Like his brother, Mark Richardson had never been in trouble with the law. He'd always thought that African-Americans in east Texas exaggerated when they told stories about local law enforcement. He's a different man now.
Unidentified Man: Do you think this is about being black?
Mr. M. RICHARDSON: Yes, yes. I mean, I didn't want - I think so. I think - and that's so sad because I didn't really believe that at first. That's why it's so hard for me to say that, but it's true. They don't like blacks.
GOODWYN: Mark Richardson puts the heels of his hands up to his eyes and weeps.
(Soundbite of crying)
GOODWYN: 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'd like to sell the house in Clarksville and put his hometown in his rearview mirror. Now, it is the Richardson's turn to seek justice in an East Texas courtroom. Their civil rights lawsuit against the Red River County district attorney, the sheriff and the chief of police begins early next year.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.
BLOCK: Wade also had a disturbing encounter while he was interviewing the Richardson brothers on the sidewalk behind their former high school. He writes about that in his reporter's notebook at npr.org.