|Robert Bryant, after his beating by Alabama sheriff's deputies|
(Photo by Madison County Sheriff's Department, from al.com)
As horrifying as those cases are, the most troubling case of dysfunctional law enforcement might be unfolding near Huntsville, Alabama. It shines new light on my own ugly encounter with Alabama deputies, in Shelby County (south of Birmingham), in October 2013.
At the heart of the Huntsville story is a handyman named Robert Bryant, who lives just across the state border in Tennessee. He was stalked by Madison County sheriff's deputies, pulled over in an apparently bogus traffic stop, and brutally beaten by the side of a road while in handcuffs, his teeth knocked out. It all apparently was in retaliation for a barroom scuffle that Bryant had engaged in with an off-duty deputy named Justin Watson.
Then the story turns really dark.
Jason Klonowski had essentially become Bryant's public voice; the two had become friends after Klonowski hired Bryant to do work on his farm. Klonowski, convinced that deputies had mistreated his friend, found lawyers for Bryant and helped pay his legal bills. He paid for signs and T-shirts to show support for Bryant and raise questions about the sheriff's department. He stated at a public event on September 28, 2013, that he would not stop until at least two deputies, Watson and Jake Church, were in prison.
A little more than a month later, Klonowski was found dead. He had been placed in a chair next to his barn, wearing a cap. But when the cap was removed, investigators saw he had been executed, with three gunshot wounds to the back of his head.
The FBI is investigating possible criminal civil-rights violations by multiple deputies, and the Alabama Bureau of Investigation is looking into the murder of Jason Klonowski, which remains unsolved.
Reporter Challen Stephens lays it out in a compelling seven-part series, which ran all of last week at al.com. My experience has been that the mainstream press in Alabama usually doesn't take a close look at cases of possible police misconduct. But Stephens shines a bright light on the case of Robert Bryant and Jason Klonowski, and the series is likely to be a candidate for major journalism awards.
Bryant filed a lawsuit, and the county quickly paid $625,000 to settle the matter earlier this year. No depositions were taken in the case before the county's insurer agreed to make the payment.
|Murder victim Jason Klonowski|
Hank Sherrod, an attorney for Bryant, had this to say about the the sheriff's department stance of waiting to see what happens with federal authorities:
"That's essentially saying I have a policy of no discipline," said Hank Sherrod, Bryant's attorney, observing that federal indictments against local police are rare.
Last August, Sherrod wrote this statement in response to sheriff's department inaction:
"This is an outrageous policy and explains how the deputies who beat Robert Bryant thought they could get away with it. It is sad indeed that only an investigation by federal law enforcement officials gives Robert Bryant hope that these deputies will be held accountable for their crimes. Until that hoped-for day, these deputies patrol Madison County, hold all the powers of any law enforcement officer, and know they have the full support of the sheriff."
Where does all of this stand? In the final installment of his series on Sunday, Stephens reports:
On Nov. 4, 2014, Dorning won re-election for a fourth term. He was uncontested in the GOP primary. The Klonowski case remains unsolved, largely left to the charge of a single state investigator who has repeatedly interviewed Klonowski's few friends and associates, but not the deputies who Klonowski had promised to see imprisoned.In other words, no one really has been held accountable--and the same applies in my case. I was arrested on October 23, 2013, because of an unlawful preliminary injunction in a defamation lawsuit brought by Birmingham attorney Rob Riley, the son of former Governor Bob Riley. I stayed in jail for five months on a charge of contempt of court, in a civil matter, becoming the only journalist in the western hemisphere to be incarcerated in 2013.
To this day, nearly all involved continue to work as deputies and enforce the law in Madison County.
Do I have an idea how Robert Bryant might feel about his experience? Yes, I do. A deputy named Mike DeHart conducted a bogus traffic stop on my wife and me, falsely claiming I had run through a stop sign--when his clear aim was to serve me with court papers in the Riley lawsuit. It's hard to imagine a more blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Less than a month after that, Deputy Chris Blevins entered our garage, which is essentially a basement underneath our house, and proceeded to beat me up. He knocked me to a concrete floor three times and maced me in the face --all without showing a warrant or even saying he had a warrant. In fact, video of the incident shows Blevins did not tell me he was there for an arrest until I had already been sprayed with mace.
I was charged with resisting arrest--even though Blevins own incident report states I did nothing but raise my arms in front of my face, to ward off his attack. At the trial on that charge, prosecutor Tonya Willingham was ordered to turn over any warrants, and she told Judge Ron Jackson that she didn't have any. Blevins also admitted that the incident constituted a traffic stop--I was coming home and trying to pull our car into the garage--and he had no probable cause to stop me for a traffic violation.
Based on courtroom evidence, my arrest and five-month jail stay represent a butchery of due process.
Evidence also strongly suggests that both DeHart and Blevins testified falsely in official proceedings about what they did to my wife and me.
So yes, I think I know how Robert Bryant feels. And the murder of Jason Kronkowski is starting to make me feel lucky that I'm alive.