Monday, March 12, 2012

Miscarriage of justice: the Jesse Shotts story

Twenty years after the fact, I return to a series of events that shaped my perception of not just American justice, but American society. What follows is part personal anecdote and part legal history. It challenges how we see our law enforcement system, in all its multitudinous ways, often more incompetent than malicious. Conspiracies require flawless, exactingly detailed work by everyone involved, with no accidental leaks to the media. Often, I see in its place a childish tit-for-tat retaliation with decisions motivated mostly by spite. 

Jesse Woodrow Shotts was a well-respected criminal defense lawyer from Birmingham, Alabama. He billed himself, informally, as the champion of the underprivileged. This belief was likely due to a substantial chip on the shoulder. Shotts had grown up working class in a city where the blast furnaces of the steel mills still pumped a thick, consistent cloud of acrid smoke over the entire metropolitan area. He’d had the intelligence and the ambition to be able to look beyond the back-breaking, laborious jobs that seemingly employed the entire city.

In high school, he'd been a scrappy, determined shortstop on the baseball team. His pugnacious, hard working attitude carried over into his adulthood. By the early 1990’s, Jesse Shotts, though his own hard work and diligence, had made a reputation for himself. He felt genuine compassion for the people he represented, who were often ex-cons or those with sketchy pasts. When most people would have kept their distance, Shotts put them under his employ and kept their heads above water.

Times had changed considerably in a city once considered the most segregated in America. Civil Rights drove whites en masse out of the city limits, over Red Mountain. The immediate downtown area was left impoverished and overwhelmingly black, including North Birmingham. When wave after wave of whites and white-owned businesses had flown the coop, he’d deliberately kept his law office and primary means of business there. 

Many of his clients were low-income people of color. As if to prove his loyalty, Shotts also owned and maintained a series of rental properties in the same part of town. Underneath a casual nonchalance, Shotts was really a liberal underneath it all. Not that he would ever embrace the label.

Shotts made mistakes. His biggest mistake was being good at what he did. A skillful criminal defense lawyer, he made his reputation by consistently beating the Feds at their own game. This won him friends but also the enmity of his enemies. Shotts could sometimes be cocky, which further enraged some fairly formidable foes, the Federal Bureau of Investigation being one of them. Even with that knowledge, I’m not sure he ever could have foreseen the direction his life was to take.  

Jack Montgomery was a Criminal Court Judge in Jefferson County, which contains all of Birmingham proper. Montgomery’s infamy and eccentricities were legendary. By turns racist, vulgar, and haranguing in the courtroom, the judge was the very definition of loose cannon. Having run unopposed for every term of office, in part by putting the fear of God into potential opponents, Montgomery’s behavior grew more and more outlandish and erratic with age. In 1992, the judge was caught red-handed accepting bribes and charged with racketeering, extortion, and bribary. This already sordid story soon took an unexpected and surprising twist. 

There is, of course, one more crucial distinction that needs to be made first. Jack Montgomery and Jesse Shotts were close friends.    

FBI agents executed a search warrant at Judge Montgomery’s house, which turned up $31,000. Montgomery resigned immediately.   

When taken to trial, Judge Montgomery tried a variety of stalling tactics which delayed the process for months. He consistently claimed to be physically and psychologically unable to stand trial. In time, his courtroom shenanigans exhausted, he was taken before the court and found guilty. While awaiting sentencing, the judge’s eccentricities reached new heights, as he broke a hip while running naked down his driveway. Following that, he cut himself with a chainsaw, for reasons unknown.

Two days before sentencing, Montgomery was found dead of a gunshot wound in his basement. Curiously, no suicide note, or murder weapon was found. This led to speculation that his fifth wife pulled the trigger, or that a vindictive FBI arranged the killing. Most people suspected suicide. In any case, Montgomery was nevertheless now unable to be formally pronounced guilty and sent to prison.

Taking down Jack Montgomery had been something of a holy grail for federal prosecutors. Having cheated justice with his demise, the FBI was deprived of the satisfaction of having attained a plum conviction. Accordingly, the Bureau began to formulate strategies to go after secondary targets. One of them was Jesse Woodrow Shotts.

If guilt by association is admissible evidence, Jesse Shotts would have found himself sentenced and jailed without the need for a formal trial. FBI wiretaps were said to have revealed a conversation between the late judge and Shotts discussing the legality of bail bonds. Bail bonds are a system by which a person pays a percentage of a court-specified bail amount to a professional bonds agent. The agent, in turn, puts up cash as a guarantee that the person will appear in court.

The prosecution insisted that Montgomery and Shotts had colluded when Montgomery signed a bond in a county over which the judge had no judicial authority. Shotts, in accordance with state law, as an attorney, was banned outright from owning a bail bonds company. The prosecution based much of its case upon the assertion that Jesse Shotts had been the proprietor of the bail bonds business. The defense vigorously disagreed and disputed this fact strongly.

During the first trial and the appeal to follow, the FBI relied heavily on the testimony of one witness. Her name was Kandy Kennedy. Kennedy was Shotts’ secretary, a woman with a checkered past of her own, who had spent time in prison. According to the defense, Kennedy had been threatened with additional jail time and turned state’s witness as a result. She stood accused of aiding in the destruction of other bail bonds that had been signed by Jack Montgomery. Any firmly established chain of events or timeline involved in said accusation was never proven in trial, one way or the other.

Shotts would be ultimately convicted on a 26 count indictment in 1995, three years after Montgomery’s death. An appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1998 would reverse all but 2 of the charges. But by then, Shotts had been sent off to prison. The manual labor demanded of inmates created severe back problems. He retained his freedom on appeal, but left jail a broken man.

Fighting the case had depleted his savings and his health. Shotts even managed to employ legal heavyweight Alan Dershowitz to represent him for a time. For years afterwards, Shotts still continued to contest his case, even appealing to the Supreme Court. By 2003, the appeal eventually reached the highest court in the land. However, what had been a decade-long process reached its end when the justices passed on it. Fighting to reinstate his legal license, Shotts wanted most of all to reverse his conviction. He never regained the right to practice law. Shotts died a few years later of a heart attack.

Looking back now, twenty years after the fact, my understanding of the criminal justice system has expanded greatly. Our allegiances seem to fall somewhere in between a populist rancor at an authoritarian government and an incredible frustration at incompetence. Sometimes the systems that regulate our personal dealings are impotent, and sometimes they are overreaching. That being said, I have my own sympathies. I still believe that Jesse Shotts got a raw deal, in a frame-up by a group of men who wanted blood justice at any cost.

I would vindicate his name if I could, but I know that the real facts of the case may never be revealed. Many likely died with him. Like many lawyers, Shotts played it very close to the line and with a degree of relish. I’m thankful for the people who find trench warfare appealing, but I’m more conservative. Shotts’ case reveals to me that the lines between good and evil, legal and illegal, are much more blurry than we’d like to admit to ourselves.

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