Friday, March 21, 2008

The Chuck Stops Here

by Vanessa Leggett

Several months ago, the Harris County District Attorney’s general counsel gave his boss some bad news. A federal judge had issued an order compelling D.A. Chuck Rosenthal to produce copies of all e-mail correspondence for a designated period. The order was issued in relation to a civil rights lawsuit filed by two brothers in Houston.

Back in 2002, Harris County deputies conducted a drug raid on their street. During the raid, the brothers and their family watched the activity next door and observed what they considered abuses of power. The brothers decided to document the raid with a video camera. A deputy noticed and demanded the camera and film. The brothers refused. Without a warrant or any evidence of probable cause, deputies entered the brothers’ home, assaulted them, seized the camera and film, which was ultimately destroyed, and hauled the brothers to jail for “resisting arrest.”

After their arrests, the brothers asked the D.A.’s office as well as the Sheriff’s Office to investigate the deputies for civil rights violations. Their requests were ignored. During the discovery phase of the lawsuit, the brothers’ attorney asked for all e-mail correspondence regarding the matter. He believed he would find messages between Chuck Rosenthal and the Sheriff that would establish an agreement between the two lawmen to ignore the brothers’ requests for an investigation of official oppression. A federal judge deemed it a valid inquiry and ordered the production of all e-mail correspondence.

What happened next landed the D.A. in the hot seat for contempt of court. Last November, the prosecutor who serves as general legal counsel for the D.A.’s office personally informed Rosenthal that the court had issued the order for the e-mail messages. The discussion took place in Rosenthal's office. Rosenthal gave him permission to check the index of e-mails on the District Attorney's computer to get a sense of the scope of what they might have to produce.

"He sat at my chair,” Rosenthal later testified at the contempt hearing. “I sat behind him and he performed some manipulations on my desktop computer.” Those "manipulations" consisted of a half hour of the assistant district attorney taking “screen shots” to capture images of the skeletal index of messages. The contents of the messages were not read or printed. As the backseat driver of his own computer, Rosenthal would have seen that no messages were opened or copied. The only document printed was the index, which displays limited information regarding e-mail transmissions, i.e., dates and times messages were sent and received. The real manipulations took place as soon as the assistant district attorney left Chuck Rosenthal's office.

That same afternoon, Rosenthal recently admitted, he sat in front of his computer and went through around four thousand e-mail messages, selectively deleting more than 2,000. Unfortunately for Rosenthal, his general counsel provided a copy of the screen shots of the e-mail index to the plaintiffs’ lawyer. When the e-mail messages Rosenthal finally produced fell short—by a couple thousand—of the number displayed on the index of messages, all hell broke loose.

Did any of those missing messages suggest a conspiracy between the D.A.’s Office and the Sheriff’s Office to stonewall the brothers whose rights were violated? It’s impossible to tell, since none of those 2,000 messages was recovered. At least the brothers have been exonerated of any criminal wrongdoing. Recently, the county settled with the brothers for $1.7 million dollars. Rosenthal has since been forced from office. But he has yet to face justice. A critical piece of business remains: a ruling on the plaintiffs’ motion to hold Rosenthal in contempt of court for his destruction of potential evidence.

Ironically, I found myself in a similar situation in 2001, when a federal judge held me in civil contempt of court for my refusal to surrender confidential source material for a book in which Rosenthal is a character. In fact, the day that I was released from jail is the same day Rosenthal's current problems began, when the brothers' civil rights were violated. Thus my open letter here.


Jan said...

Bless you, Vanessa. For having the courage to stand for your convictions. Unlike Chuck. This is tragedy piled upon misfortune.

Anonymous said...

If this had taken place in Harris county in the 80s, it would have been considered standard operating procedure for Houston's police and DA's office. That it happened in 2002 is completely mind blowing.