Commentary

Drug War Casualties Left Behind

A circuit court judge in Mississippi has ordered a new sentencing trial for Cory Maye, a man sentenced to death for shooting a police officer who had broken into his home in a no-knock drug raid in 2001. Judge Michael Eubanks ruled recently that Maye’s legal counsel during the sentencing phase was unconstitutionally inadequate, and he is expected to rule later on requests for a “not guilty” verdict or a new trial.

Maye’s plight is a case study in the problems with drug policing in America, from questionable confidential informants to invasive paramilitary tactics, overworked and underfunded defense attorneys, and how all of the above seem to disproportionately affect low-income people, particularly African-Americans.

Maye, who is black, shot a white police officer, Ron Jones, who is also the son of the town police chief in Prentiss, Miss., a town plagued by poor race relations, high unemployment, soaring crime rates and a burgeoning drug trade.

Late on the night of Dec. 26, 2001, Jones assembled a group of policemen to respond to a tip from a confidential informant that there was marijuana in the duplex Maye and his family shared with Jamie Smith. Described in the search warrants as a “known drug dealer,” Smith had drug charges pending against him.

Maye maintains that he didn’t know they were police officers. He says he fired his gun in self-defense, and in defense of his 18-month-old daughter, who was asleep at the time.

The first jury to hear his case didn’t believe him. In 2004, he was convicted of capital murder - the intentional killing of an on-duty police officer - and sentenced to death.

I stumbled upon Maye’s case in December 2005 while researching a paper on paramilitary drug raids for the Cato Institute. Having reviewed nearly a thousand drug raids, I found much troubling about Maye’s case. I obtained copies of the search warrants and affidavits, and saw that Maye’s name didn’t appear on them.

I began writing about the case on my Web log. Then, blogs from across the political spectrum started speaking out against the apparent injustice. Events since have confirmed my suspicions.

In December, Prentiss Mayor Charles Dumas called Bob Evans, a public defender in Prentiss who served as Maye’s chief counsel. Dumas told him that the town’s aldermen were unhappy with his decision to represent Maye in his appeal. He told Evans he might even lose his job - an odd threat, given that as a public defender this was Evans’ job. In January, Evans was fired.

By then Maye’s plight caught the attention of Abram Pafford, an associate at the Washington, D.C., law firm Covington and Burling.

Pafford had been pushing his firm to offer pro bono assistance to Evans. In February, the firm came on board. Over the next several months, the new legal team conducted its own investigation, hired its own experts and assembled a new motion to overturn Maye’s conviction.

Recently, a private investigator discovered the identity of the confidential informant: a poor, uneducated local resident named Randy Gentry, who later left a profane 45-second rant on the answering machine of one of the defense lawyers, complete with racial epithets and threats.

Last week in Poplarville, Miss., Maye was finally given a hearing on his post-trial motions. His new legal team mounted a vigorous defense, calling new expert witnesses, showing computer animations and presenting significant new evidence - the fruits of several months of investigation.

The hearing played out like a cinematic Southern courtroom drama. Maye’s family had chartered a church bus to bring nearly 50 friends and family to fill out the defense side of the courtroom. On the prosecution side, Jones’ family, Prentiss town officials and about a half-dozen police officers showed up in support of the state.

It’s hard to fathom that Maye would have knowingly and intentionally killed a police officer. He had no criminal record, and at worst, a misdemeanor amount of marijuana in his home.

He is off death row for now, but that isn’t enough. He ought to be released from prison. At the very least, he should be given a new trial.

What’s more, Maye’s case should provoke a national debate about drug policing, including the use of confidential informants and confrontational paramilitary tactics. Despite the predicament he’s in, Maye at least now has the benefit of adequate counsel.

One wonders how many outrages like his still wait to be discovered.

Radley Balko is a policy analyst specializing in civil liberties issues and is the author of Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America.