A Rush to Judgment in Dothan, Alabama
Dec. 4, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Anyone concerned about police corruption would be thrilled to hear the story coming out of Dothan, Alabama. According to whistleblowers, police officers were routinely planting drugs on black suspects under the protection of the Police Chief and the District Attorney.
This is the sort of story that could put the lie to Scalia’s talk of the “new professionalism” of police officers. Here was a story that suggested something far worse than the ordinary incompetence and disregard for rights that normally fill the pages of this and many other blogs. Here was an entire department of officers deliberately violating the rights of black citizens.
If only it were true.
In short, the blog post suggests that:
- A specialized narcotics unit routinely planted drugs on black men.
- Supervising officers were members of a “Neoconfederate” organization that advocated for the return of blacks to Africa.
- Police Chief John White instructed officers to ignore complaints of drug planting.
- That all of these cases were then prosecuted by the District Attorney without notice to the defense.
- That one of the officers, Mike Magrino, failed a polygraph denying that he planted drugs.
As far as the evidence of drug-planting goes, the author produces a memo with no “to” line and the name blacked out. It suggests concerns that an officer may have planted cocaine on a suspect. There is also an unsigned letter that was placed on the desk of a Dothan Commissioner, suggesting that Magrino had planted drugs on minority suspects and officials had covered it up.
That, plus a crazy-looking letter in blocky hand-writing, is the extent of the evidence.
The specific incident he is illustrating involving a former officer was addressed and handled in accordance with applicable laws and department policy when it occurred back in the late 1990’s. The officer involved in his illustration has not worked at this department since that time. It is also important to note that the accusations against the officer were for the improper storage of evidence and not the “planting of evidence.” To my knowledge, there had never been a single complaint filed against that officer during his entire career for the planting evidence on anyone.
Many of the rest of the documents in the post suggest that this was the reason for his firing. Other officers were finding drugs and guns in his car that had not been properly placed into evidence. When he was asked about it, he made lame excuses, or suddenly “found” a gun that had gone missing.
This was probably not a routine feature of the department, or else other officers wouldn’t have stepped forward to complain about it (albeit anonymously).
While it certainly is troubling that no one investigated whether Magrino was routinely planting drugs on suspects (especially after he failed a polygraph denying it), or charged him with a crime, that sort of preferential treatment for police officers is pretty routine. Especially after he was fired, the department had little incentive to go back and look at his cases.
This meant, as the author of the anonymous letter noted, that he could indeed go on to other departments with a clean record and make more trouble.
This sucks. But it’s still a far cry from the allegations of department-wide, racially based evidence tampering that made the author’s blog post go viral in the first place.
It also doesn’t seem like the post is terribly fair to District Attorney Doug Velaska. Allegedly, he knew that officers were planting drugs and was more than willing to present that evidence in court. But one of the memos suggests a different story:
The District Attorney, Doug Valeska has been advised of the investigation (into Magrino failing to store evidence) and has a problem bringing the suspects in drug cases to trial due to Magrino’s credibility being in jeopardy.
That is pretty much the exact opposite of being cool with an officer planting drugs. It sounds like a prosecutor being (rightfully) reluctant to bring drug cases where there will be major chain of custody issues that will have to be addressed through an unreliable witness.
Now, if Valeska went forward on these cases, and if he did not disclose Magrino’s credibility problems to defense attorneys, that’s a big constitutional problem. But there’s no evidence that any of the potential victims were ever even prosecuted.
As far as Parrish and others being involved in a “Neoconfederate” organization, the evidence for that seems to be limited to a picture of a bunch of dudes huddled up behind a Confederate Flag. Parrish explains:
“I’m a history enthusiast. Genealogy is what I’ve studied — my lineage. My ancestors fought for the South in the Civil War,” Parrish said. “I’m proud of that. If that makes me a demon, I’m sorry.” Parrish says around 1999 he thought it would be a novel idea to form a Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter in Henry County.
Now, it’s certainly understandable why anyone would be concerned to see a police officer draping himself with the trappings of the Confederacy. But it’s painting with a pretty broad brush to say that his one-time membership in the Sons of Confederate Veterans paints him as someone who would deliberately falsify evidence against minority suspects.
Maybe with more time, the Henry County Report will produce a slew of additional documents vindicating his claims. That would be a tremendous stroke of journalism. But given how poorly the stuff he’s produced supports his claims so far, that seems unlikely.
Any defense attorney worth his salt knows about the rush to judgment. About the impossible task of persuading a prosecutor that a client is innocent when she just knows, deep in her gut, that he’s a bad person who deserves to be punished.
And yet, it’s just so damn tempting to fall into the same trap when it confirms our own bias. The story of Dothan is a story we should carry with us whenever someone’s account slips too easily into our pre-existing prejudices.
We can’t ask others to practice skepticism if we don’t live it ourselves.
[i] SPLC has since retracted their posting of the article.