Forcing a District Attorney’s Hand

Article originally published here & written by Sheila Dewan
At far right, District Attorney Douglas A. Valeska points, from inside a closet, at evidence bags in front of an investigator, Billy Crawford, on the stand, during a murder trial at the Henry County Court House in Abbeville, Ala, in September. Credit Phil Sears for The New York Times
At far right, District Attorney Douglas A. Valeska points, from inside a closet, at evidence bags in front of an investigator, Billy Crawford, on the stand, during a murder trial at the Henry County Court House in Abbeville, Ala, in September. Credit Phil Sears for The New York Times

Reporting on criminal justice in rural areas can bring with it a sense of foreboding, if not outright fear. I drive the speed limit, cross at the crosswalk and carry protection — in the form of my business card and Times identification. But sometimes, such measures don’t help.

I was in Dothan, Ala., one morning in May, working on a story about the criminal justice system — in particular, pretrial diversion, a program that is designed to give offenders a second chance. In Dothan, people pay high fees for that privilege. The program is run by the district attorney, Douglas A. Valeska, who had been in power for three decades and who, some said, was the most powerful man in Houston and Henry Counties. In my efforts to get a better feel for the place, I had just attended a meeting of the city commission.

Will Widmer, a New Orleans-based photographer working with me on the story, had also been trying to get a sense of the place, driving around taking photos.

Some strange things have happened to me as I have reported about the low-level offenses, fines and fees that dominate our justice system. Such cases rarely rise to journalistic scrutiny, though they can entrap the poor in an endless relationship with the courts and jails. In Dothan courtrooms, I saw defendants pleading guilty because they were unable to afford diversion. I also saw young women charged with felonies after the hospital reported that they had tested positive for marijuana when giving birth. A young, mentally ill black man had escaped from a psych ward and, still wearing a hospital gown, grabbed someone’s phone to call for a ride. Instead of being marched back to the hospital, he was arrested and jailed.

In thousands of courthouses, such cases are routine. The few observers stand out: No matter how inconspicuous I tried to be, I would get “made” within minutes of entering a courthouse.

In one town I visited, the courtroom was actually closed to the public, and I had to get special permission to be present. In another town, when my colleague, Andy Lehren, and I inspected one public record too many, a judge sent police officers to eject us from the courthouse. (Apparently he believed we were grifters trying to prey on the defendants of Pine Bluff, Ark., most of whom have no money out of which they could be scammed.)

For his part, Will, the photographer in Dothan, was having a more intense experience. Though he too had been careful, the police had followed him and pulled him over for failing to use his turn signal early enough. Moments later, a canine unit arrived. The dogs circled Will’s rental car and, allegedly, signaled the officers near the driver’s seat. On those grounds, the police searched first the car, then Will personally, but found nothing. They did not seem aware that he was a reporter, only that he had been driving around a poor neighborhood and, I later learned, had stopped in front of a “known crack house.” They let him go with a warning.

Coincidentally, I soon received a call asking if I would like to talk to Dothan’s chief of police. Yes, indeed I would.

Chief Steve Parrish has a complicated history, but he gave me the impression that, since he had taken charge in May 2015, he had been battling to make the department less vindictive and more professional. I described what had happened to Will as a hypothetical scenario — minus the crack house detail, which I didn’t know. The chief said it sounded like poor policing. “When I take two steps forward in building a positive relationship in the community, and you stop somebody because their tag light is out and write them a ticket, I have to take a step back,” he lamented. “I don’t like taking a step back.”

When I revealed that the events in question had actually happened, he seemed mortified. He wanted to apologize personally to Will, but we demurred, not wanting to become part of the story.

A day or two later, I spied the district attorney, Mr. Valeska, outside a law firm getting into his car. I got behind him, just to observe his turn signal habits. The first thing he did was turn without signaling.

Mr. Valeska proved to be extraordinarily elusive journalistic quarry. He deflected our open records requests almost entirely, asking for thousands of dollars to cover the cost of, for example, redacting a bank account number that we already had (it had not been redacted in response to previous records requests by others).

Mr. Valeska never answered emails or phone calls, either. At one point, I became convinced that he had instructed his staff not to answer if they saw The New York Times on the caller ID, because call after call to his main office during business hours went unanswered. When I went to the small town of Abbeville to attend a capital murder trial he was prosecuting, I bumped into him at Money’s Grill during lunch and bade him good morning. He did not reply.

That trial had stunning optics: The courtroom was ringed by portraits of white men — mostly former judges — and in the courtroom, the judge, lawyers, court reporter and sheriff’s deputies were all white. The victim, defendant and most of the witnesses were black.

The judge, Brad Mendheim, had instructed that while we could not bring a camera into the courtroom, journalists previously had been allowed to crack open the door and shoot from there. The courthouse hallways, he said, were public. I sent Mr. Valeska an email letting him know that a photographer would be there and that if he preferred to sit for a more formal portrait we could accommodate him. During three decades as D.A., he had been photographed and appeared on television numerous times, and he even had his portrait painted for the state victims’ rights group. He did not reply.

But when the photographer, Phil Sears, arrived from Florida and began to shoot Mr. Valeska in the hall during a break, the D.A. asked the sheriff to confiscate the camera and delete the picture. Then he came thundering into the courtroom, where I was standing at the bench discussing the photo situation with the judge. When I explained to the sheriff that we had been told the hall was fair game, he said very politely, “But you’ll delete the photo?”

“No,” I said.

A note written by Judge Brad Mendheim that was handed to the author. “Hoping for this, I had already drawn a map of the courtroom for the photographer showing him where the D.A. would be sitting and standing.”
A note written by Judge Brad Mendheim that was handed to the author. “Hoping for this, I had already drawn a map of the courtroom for the photographer showing him where the D.A. would be sitting and standing.”

A couple of hours later, I was handed a handwritten note from the judge, who had double-checked the rules. “You can take photos from courtroom door as long as it is brief and not disruptive,” he wrote. Hoping for this, I had already drawn a map of the courtroom for the photographer showing him where the D.A. would be sitting and standing.

Mr. Valeska was examining a witness when the photographer cracked the door and inserted his lens. The D.A. immediately went to a door near the witness stand and stepped halfway out of the courtroom, into what we later learned was a closet. From there — out of view of the witness, the jury and the camera — he continued to ask questions until Phil was told his time was up. As soon as the camera was gone, Mr. Valeska resumed his normal place.

Phil emerged with a nice photo of the D.A.’s hand.

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