Opinion writer

Earlier this week, a watchdog site called the Henry County Report posted an explosive investigation alleging that a group of drug cops in the Dothan, Alabama, police department have been planting drugs on young black men since at least the late 1990s, and that the former police chief and district attorney helped cover it all up.

The Alabama Justice Project has obtained documents that reveal a Dothan Police Department’s Internal Affairs investigation was covered up by the district attorney. A group of up to a dozen police officers on a specialized narcotics team were found to have planted drugs and weapons on young black men for years. They were supervised at the time by Lt. Steve Parrish, current Dothan Police Chief, and Sgt. Andy Hughes, current Asst. Director of Homeland Security for the State of Alabama. All of the officers reportedly were members of a Neoconfederate organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center labels “racial extremists.” The group has advocated for blacks to return to Africa, published that the civil rights movement is really a Jewish conspiracy, and that blacks have lower IQ’s . Both Parrish and Hughes held leadership positions in the group and are pictured above holding a confederate battle flag at one of the club’s secret meetings.

The documents shared reveal that the internal affairs investigation was covered up to protect the aforementioned officers’ law enforcement careers and keep them from being criminally prosecuted.

Several long term Dothan law enforcement officers, all part of an original group that initiated the investigation, believe the public has a right to know that the Dothan Police Department, and District Attorney Doug Valeska, targeted young black men by planting drugs and weapons on them over a decade. Most of the young men were prosecuted, many sentenced to prison, and some are still in prison.  Many of the officers involved were subsequently promoted and are in leadership positions in law enforcement.

(Note: Dothan is the seat for Houston County. Valeska is DA for Alabama’s 20th Judicial District, which also includes Henry County.)

At first blush, the documents provided by author Jon Carroll certainly seem damning. But in most cases, the site only provides access to portions of those documents. And though the report claims that several officers have been accused by colleagues of planting drugs, it focuses and provides documentation only for the allegations against one, and the accusations there concern the mishandling of evidence, which could include — but doesn’t necessarily indicate — the planting of evidence on suspects. The report also mentions that Parrish and other officers were members of a group that the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “racial extremist,” but didn’t specify which group. (More on that in a moment.) The article also included a photo of Parrish and other officers posing in front of a Confederate flag.

I tweeted the story, along with a follow-up tweet about racial bias in the criminal justice system. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t.

The story quickly went viral. Shortly after, I poked around for more information on the Alabama Justice Project, the Henry County Report, and Jon Carroll, who looks to be the main (and it appears only) person associated with each. I also began asking some trusted contacts and sources in Alabama if they knew anything about Carroll, the website, or the organization. None had heard of any of them.

On the other hand, no one I talked to who has done criminal defense work in Alabama was surprised by the allegations, and all had negative things to say about Dothan, Houston County, and District Attorney Doug Valeska in particular. (Valeska has been DA there for more than 20 years.) One prominent defense attorney in the state says the county is so rife with racism that he had advised black clients to take plea bargains even when they have corroborating witnesses, simply because white jurors there just tend to assume that black people are lying. He described the racism in the area as so casual and ingrained that the people who practice it are unaware of it. “It’s the scariest kind of bigotry,” he added. Another defense attorney who has practiced in the state said Valeska was the worst DA he’d ever seen. Another said he’d heard “scary stuff” coming out of Dothan for years.

Here are some other things we know about Dothan, DA Valeska, and Houston County.

  • According to the Equal Justice Initiative, from 2006 to 2010, prosecutors from Houston County used preemptory strikes to exclude 82 percent of black jurors from death penalty cases.
  • Because of those challenges, every single death penalty case in Houston County over that period had an all-white jury or a jury with a single black juror. Houston County is 27 percent black.
  • Valeska’s office has had several cases overturned by appeals courts due to the systematic exclusion of blacks from juries. He has also had verdicts overturned due to illegal evidence and improper comments to juries.
  • Despite a population of just 103,000, Houston County has sent 17 people to death row, a staggering rate that leads the state and, as best I can tell, is the highest rate in the nation among counties with three or more death sentences — by quite a bit.
  • In June, federal district court judge Myron Thompson refused to throw out a racial discrimination suit by longtime Dothan police officer Keith Gray. In that suit Thompson noted that Parrish was not only a member of a group called “Sons of the Confederacy,” he named his own son after Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first “grand wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan. Parrish, who again is currently the Dothan police chief, recently confirmed his membership in Sons of the Confederacy to the Dothan Eagle. “I am a history enthusiast,” Parrish told the paper. “My ancestors fought for the South during the Civil War, and I’m proud of it.” Dothan is 30 percent black.
  • Gray’s suit alleges numerous incidents of Dothan officers using racial slurs and incidents of racial bigotry.
  • His suit further alleges harassment and mistreatment of minority citizens, including at least one incident in which a young black man was arrested on what Gray deemed to be “trumped up charges.”

It’s probably this history that had so many so ready to believe the allegations about planting drugs. That said, everyone I reached out over the last two days also had serious reservations about Carroll’s report. None wanted to be publicly associated with the story until they saw more documentation and verification of its claims. Since then, Dothan Police Chief Steve Parrish has denounced the site and Carroll in harsh, certain terms, calling the report “lies.” The Southern Poverty Law Center, which also Tweeted out the original report, has since retracted those tweets, citing questions about the reporting and an inability to authenticate the documents.

Jon Carroll didn’t return my request for an interview, but he did speak with Leon Neyfakh at Slate, who raised some of the same questions about the report. Carroll told Neyfakh he’ll be releasing more of the 800+ documents he claims to have obtained “over time.” He also said his primary goal is to trigger a Justice Department investigation. Neyfakh also points out that Carroll himself claims to have had drugs planted on him.

Like Neyfakh, I think that while the documents Carroll has released so far are troubling, they don’t back up his very serious claim that Dotham police have been planting evidence on young black men since the late 1990s. Perhaps future documents will, but Carroll should have waited until he was ready to release those documents to post the story.

The rest of us shouldn’t have been so quick to bite. I regret tweeting out his article without more skepticism. There are some real, documented problems in Alabama’s 20th Judicial District. If these new allegations don’t ultimately check out, it will be that much more difficult to get anyone to take those other problems seriously.