When justice is tainted

When justice is tainted

August 15th, 2012 in Opinion Times

District Attorney General Robert Steven Bebb

Misconduct, ethical violations and corruption are legend in the history of law enforcement in rural counties and small towns as much, if not more, than in larger cities. The nexus of legal power and politics, anointed authority and the arrogance of seeming immunity can simply override the sense of duty over time in some people.

Elements of this age-old dynamic are clearly evident in the well-documented series of six reports by Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Judy Walton that are being published in this paper this week. Walton's daily stories, substantiated by excellent reporting and a trove of official documents laboriously obtained over seven months by numerous requests for public records, pertain to the state's 10th Judicial District, which encompasses neighboring Bradley, McMinn, Monroe and Polk counties, and is headed by District Attorney General Steve Bebb, a former trial court judge.

Walton's stories reveal a stunning degree in various incidences of apparent official laxity, abuse of power, and violations of defendants' rights to due process; unchecked spending, favoritism and cronyism; and inexplicable decisions in both the management of a drug task force team and selected cases presented - or not presented - in court in the 10th Judicial District.

In short, Walton's findings in the district suggest the grist of John Grisham novels.

Walton found numerous documented cases in Department of Safety records in which drivers' cash, cars and other assets were seized by the 10th District Drug Task Force, chaired by Bebb, in instances where no arrests were made or charges filed and, in some instances, where no drugs were found. In many other cases, drug charges were dismissed in court, but the task force dubiously got to keep the cash, cars and property.

Serious amounts of money are at stake in such operations. The 10th District Drug Task Force, for example, brought in $5 million between 2007 and 2010. Some $100,000 of that money was freely used by 14-to-16 members of the task force team to fly around the country attending conferences and enjoying pricey dining, rooms and partying between 2008 and 2010. Critics rightly note the inappropriateness of police seizing cash and property without arrests and charges. The practice invites a lack of accountability and due process, and a wide invitation to corruption.

In other documented instances around the country, for instance, scandals have periodically erupted over corrupt law enforcement officers letting drug dealers go free, while keeping portions, or all, of their cash and drugs for their own use and disposal.

In the 2008-2010 period, former drug task force director Mike Hall was also found by Walton to have racked up $50,000 on a DTF credit card for meals for himself and other DTF members and guests, and gifts. He charged thousands more for hotel stays in and around the 10th district for himself and a female DTF agent, Angie Gibson, yet Bebb apparently turned a blind eye to Hall's conduct until - and even after - allegations of drug use by Hall prompted a TBI investigation.

Prosecutorial miscues and apparent misconduct - i.e., withholding or fabricating evidence or coercing statements - has marred three high-profile murder cases in District 10. One involves Jessica Kennedy, charged in the 2010 murder of a Monroe County Election Commission Chairman Jim Miller. Another involves John Edward Dawson, who had served four years on charges unrelated to the the 2006 killing of a Sweetwater, Tenn., businessman. Dawson was freed last month and charges dismissed by a judge after a key witness testified that he was coached to lie to help prosecutors get an indictment against Dawson.

A third case centers on the collapse of the state's case in 2010 against two of the three defendants charged in the 1999 Valentine's Day triple murder in Cleveland. The mistrials resulted from prosecutors withholding evidence and disobeying a court order, court records showed.

Other cases examined by Walton reveal disturbing instances of Bebb's apparent disinterest in TBI investigative findings involving misconduct by policemen for illegal actions that would have landed ordinary residents in court; and in court records and judges' opinions finding various serious infractions of prosecutorial standards.

Public accountability and improved conduct by officials can only take root if local citizens know what their officials are doing and demand corrections. Given Walton's reporting, residents of the 10th Judicial District will have plenty to consider by the end of the week.