The Cato Policy Analyst Who (May Have) Saved a Man’s Life

Who is Cory Maye? He’s a Mississippi man sentenced to death in 2004 for shooting a police officer in a botched, forced-entry drug raid on his apartment. The circumstances look very much like self-defense: a man asleep in his home with his 18-month-old daughter reached for a gun when someone kicked down his door late at night. Maye shot three times into the darkness and killed a police officer. Capital murder, or tragic mistake?

If you’ve heard of the Cory Maye case, it’s almost certainly due to the tireless efforts of Cato Institute policy analyst Radley Balko, who, during the course of researching a Cato policy study on paramilitary drug raids, came across reports of Maye’s conviction, got suspicious, and started digging. If you haven’t heard of the Cory Maye case by now, this will get you started:

At 11 p.m. on the night of December 26, 2001, Ron Jones along with other police officers and 1 agent employed by the Pearl River Basin Narcotics Task Force, a four-county police agency responsible for drug enforcement, went to Maye’s duplex for the purpose of drug interdiction. Jones, though not a member of the Task Force, had received a confidential tip that large quantities of marijuana were being stored and sold in the apartment of Jamie Smith, who lived in the other half of the duplex. The officers obtained search warrants for both apartments. Whether the warrants legally allowed for a no-knock entry is still not clear….

There is disagreement about what happened next. The officers then either served the warrant on Maye’s half of the duplex (later, prosecutors would say both were served simultaneously) or entered what they thought was another door to Smith’s in search of more contraband. Four of the officers who took part in the raid testified they knocked on Maye’s door and identified themselves as law enforcement officers.

Maye testified he heard neither knocks on his door nor anyone announce themselves. Maye testified he was asleep on a chair in the living room when he heard a crash, prompting him to run to his daughter’s bedroom and ready a .380-caliber pistol that he kept boxed and unclipped on top of a tall headboard. When Jones burst into the bedroom, Maye fired three times. Jones was wearing a bulletproof vest, but one bullet hit just below the vest, and the injury proved fatal.

Maye had no criminal record, and police found no evidence of drug dealing. They found only the remnants of one marijuana cigarette. Officer Jones was the police chief’s son. For what it’s worth–and in this case, it’s perhaps a lot–Jones was white, Maye is black. In this recent article for Reason magazine, Radley provides the case against the case against Cory Maye. It is, to put it mildly, hard to believe that a man in no real legal jeopardy would decide to shoot one police officer and then surrender. At the very least, we know enough to say that this man should not be executed.

And, as of last Thursday, it seems that he will not be. A Mississippi Circuit Court judge just threw out Maye’s death sentence on the grounds of inadequate assistance of counsel. I write “seems” and I put “May Have” in this post’s title as a way of knocking wood: Cory Maye could still be sentenced to death again at the rehearing. Unlikely, but possible.

The judge will later rule on the other arguments presented by Maye’s defense team. Maye’s reprieve–temporary or permanent–was made possible by the attention Radley drew to the case on his personal weblog. His posts there piqued the interest of an associate at the white-shoe law firm of Covington and Burling, who then joined local counsel Bob Evans to become part of Maye’s legal team. Congratulations to them, and let’s hope Thursday’s victory draws still more attention to the Maye case, and that they’ll eventually be able to get Maye out of jail.

And if any good can come out of the Maye case, perhaps it can draw attention to the larger issues surrounding the War on Drugs. That war has, as Radley has documented, increasingly shifted from metaphor to reality. And as paramilitary policing tactics and the warrior mindset have infected law enforcement at all levels, the bodies have mounted. Cory Maye could have been–may still become–collateral damage in that war. But for now, thanks to Thursday’s victory, he has new reason to hope.