Does the Drug War Make Prosecutors Vulnerable?

by William L. Anderson

Recently by William L. Anderson: The FAU Follies: When Universities Provide Circuses (but no bread)

Because I have become known as a fierce critic of American prosecutors, both at the state and federal levels, I have received numerous emails regarding the recent murders of prosecutors in Texas. To be honest, all I know about these cases is what I have read in standard news stories on the Internet and certainly cannot give an informed comment other than to say I believe murders are terrible things and my heart does go out to the families who are affected by this outrage.

As far as I can see, these killings have the mark of professional hit jobs with some kind of revenge being motivation:

Sources tell CBS 11 news that the DA was shot multiple times with what is believed to be an assault rifle while Cynthia McLelland was only shot once. Sources also say that there were no signs of forced entry.

This was an execution, pure and simple. One shot to the head of the wife is not the sign of a crime of anger or passion, but rather of cold-blooded calculation, while multiple shots on the man – and I guarantee that most were fired into the body after he was dead – demonstrate someone is sending a message.

How much police investigators know is something that is impossible for ordinary citizens to find out, and I am sure that much of the investigation will be carried out with much secrecy. Furthermore, because the killings are so brutal and so high-profile, a lot of people who might be more skeptical of police investigations are going to be less discerning than they ordinarily would be.

Some folks have asked me whether or not I believe we have a situation in which someone who was wronged by the DA and his staff is taking revenge. My answer is: I doubt it vociferously. The reason is that a lot of people I have known who have been falsely accused or even wrongfully convicted tend to be law-abiding types who would recoil at taking violent revenge.

For example, Reade Seligmann, one of the three Duke students falsely accused of rape in the infamous Duke Lacrosse Case, is well-known for being an honorable and decent person. His accused teammate, Collin Finnerty, is the same way, and I also know Collin's mother and father, who made a lot of money on Wall Street.

The idea of any of them committing murder against the disgraced prosecutor Michael Nifong or hiring someone to do such would be anathema to all involved. These are not people connected to crime figures and it is not like they could or would go to the offices of Murder, Inc., to hire a killer. (However, I would not be surprised if a government agent approached some of these people offering his services as an assassin or saying he could find a hit man in order to try to trap someone in a crime. During the time I wrote on the Duke Lacrosse Case, I regularly received emails from someone who kept trying to get me to agree that Nifong should be shot with a "well-aimed bullet, and I always treated the emails as an attempt to get me implicated in a murder "conspiracy.")

Likewise, I have had contact with others who have gone to prison or individuals who have a wrongfully-convicted family member, and to a person the reaction has been one of sadness and resignation and a determination to clear the name of the wrongfully-accused or convicted. These are people who have believed in the American system of justice and the idea of actually going outside the law and committing murder would be unthinkable to them.

For example, I have come to know the mother of Courtney Bisbee, a school nurse in Arizona wrongfully convicted of having “inappropriate sexual touching” with a young man who attended another school. (The accuser’s brother, the state’s star witness, since has recanted, but the appeals courts do not recognize innocence as a reason to overturn convictions no matter how outrageous they might be, and Arizona’s courts are notoriously bad in this regard.)

Courtney and her family were somewhat typical thinkers among American evangelicals who tend to support the police and the courts – at least until they are the victims. Courtney's mother has told me more than once that she could not believe this actually was happening in America. However, she has turned her energies into freeing her daughter, not taking violent revenge upon the people who went after her daughter. (In fact, the DA whose office prosecuted the case, Andrew Thomas, recently was disbarred by an Arizona legal ethics panel. While Courtney's family welcomed that development, it does not get an innocent woman out of prison.)

So, if abused and wrongfully-convicted people don't target prosecutors for killing, who does? As pointed out earlier, the killings have the marks of professional hits, which means the killers were experienced at what they did, and the most experienced killers today tend to be associated with drug gangs, and that raises another issue: How do we deal with this kind of situation?

Before answering that question, I do need to point out that because prosecutors are so protected by legal immunity that they almost are legally untouchable. Because private citizens, even those who have been egregiously wronged by prosecutors who recklessly pursued a false case, cannot file lawsuits against their tormentors, they must depend upon the very state apparatus that went after them to bring the prosecutors to justice.

Good luck with that. Prosecutors rarely are disciplined, only a tiny handful have lost their licenses (and that was after they had engaged in high-profile wrongdoing), and none have been convicted of crimes related to their misconduct. In other words, they are free to break the law and even if they are caught, most likely will return to their jobs legally untouched.

This is a situation that surely angers many and puts ordinary people in a spot where they are unable to gain even a modicum of justice for grievous wrongs done against them and their loved ones. Yet, even with all of that, I do not know of anyone in the situations of wrongful accusation or conviction in which someone physically attacked a prosecutor.

So, what gives? First, and most important, killings of this sort are rare, very rare. That is why they even are newsworthy. If prosecutors were being knocked off week after week, no one would notice if one more were killed. While the media speculates on a "trend," so far the trend is two people (and three, if one includes the DA's wife).

Second, as I noted before, prosecutors most fear drug gangs because they tend to be the most ruthless and the most professional, when it comes to killing. The media is speculating that "white supremacist" organizations such as the Aryan Brotherhood might be responsible, but one cannot legitimately equate a violent prison gang that finances itself by dealing in illegal drugs with organizations such as the Tea Party or even Ron Paul supporters, who rightfully are dissatisfied with what they see in present government and speak publicly about it.

(The Southern Poverty Law Center wants us to believe that "white supremacist" gangs are everywhere, armed to the teeth, and ready to overthrow every government in the country and establish something akin to a "The Handmaid's Tale" society. It is a great fundraising tool, but not a good description of reality.)

To be honest, the authorities would love for the culprits to be part of a dissident movement if for no other reason than to give the police the excuse to "crack down" on other groups, such as the Tea Party or others who are no threat to anyone. The media would eat it up and anyone considered to be "anti-government" would be lumped with domestic terrorists. While police are speculating that perhaps the Aryan Brotherhood gangs have joined forces with some Mexican drug gangs, even this hardly would be what the SPLC and the New York Times would hope that it is: a full-fledged rebellion among racist groups. (If such ties actually are proven, look for the NYT and SPLC to trumpet the claim that "right-wingers" are killing prosecutors and look for a way to tie the Tea Party to all of it, just as Brian Ross of ABC claimed at first that a Tea Party member committed the Aurora theater shootings last year.)

If the killers are tied with drug gangs, it would be a situation in which the police and prosecutors are being devoured by the monster that they have helped to create. Nothing brings money into police departments like the War on Drugs, and this war not only has corrupted police with money from things like seizure of cash and other property from innocent people, but also has resulted in police forces all over the country becoming little more than paramilitary organizations. To use the drug analogy, police and prosecutors are addicted to the Drug War, its money and the military equipment it encourages them to collect.

The Drug War, however, has resulted in the formation of drug gangs in Mexico that are utterly ruthless in a way that even the worst cops in this country cannot personally fathom. They don't fear U.S. law or law enforcement, and when they leave a calling card, people know they have been somewhere. Says one law enforcement expert:

…this assassination of DA McClellend and his wife is meant to send a message: no one is safe, no one is beyond our reach. We will kill you and your loved ones. We are in control here.

He continues:

This is a significant point of escalation in the crisis, (as) this type of high-profile targeting of public officials is a classic insurgent tactic. Its escalating use inside the US shows a complete lack of fear of consequences and demonstrates the fundamental shift in the strategic landscape that has already occurred.

In the end, the same police that engage in about 80,000 SWAT raids a year, often against innocent people and usually against those engaging in non-violent actions, now must cower in fear from people even more ruthless and murderous than they. Prosecutors have benefitted from the Drug War and from the growing power of the police, as the prosecutors often cover for the police by refusing to bring charges after police officers gun down innocent people in their ubiquitous drug raids. Now prosecutors find themselves in crosshairs that they cannot escape.

Unfortunately, the latest turn of events will not cause police or prosecutors to take a hard look at their own actions and how they have led to this intractable situation. Instead, they will ramp up the brutality upon innocent people, all in the name of "officer safety" and "protecting prosecutors." Like the Bourbons of France, they will "learn nothing and forget nothing."