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Woman falsely convicted in drug case tries to rebuild life

CLEVELAND, Jan. 22, 2008 (AP): An innocent mother, wrongly convicted by the federal government with help from a drug informant who lied, served 16 months in prison before she was released with no home to return to and a 3-year-old daughter who didn’t recognize her.

Defense attorneys say a street-smart but dishonest informant and a federal agent working without oversight manipulated the system to convict Geneva France and dozens of others.

``They stole the truth,'' France said. ``I don't think I'll ever trust people again. It's too hard. I don't know how a human being with a heart could stand up there and lie about another person. They stole part of my life.''

France, 25, was convicted of being a drug courier—a conviction that prosecutors now acknowledge was built on lies. A judge released her in May. Her case was part of an extensive operation to stem the flow of drugs in Mansfield.

Federal prosecutors in Cleveland charged her and 25 others from Mansfield in 2005, based on the work of informant Jerrell Bray and Drug Enforcement Administration agent Lee Lucas. Twenty-one people were convicted.

U.S. Attorney Greg White has admitted that there are major problems with the case.

Federal prosecutors were expected to ask a judge Tuesday or Wednesday to throw out the convictions of 15 men imprisoned in the same tainted investigation, including the case against a man serving 30 years in prison.

U.S. District Judge John Adams told attorneys Tuesday that he hopes to have the men out of prison by Feb. 1.

``This does not happen, it just does not happen,'' said federal public defender Dennis Terez. ``But what the prosecutors did was the right thing.''

White declined comment Tuesday on the status of the cases.

``There's an investigation going on in looking at the relationship with Mr. Bray and these cases,'' White said. ``That's being conducted by the Department of Justice. We are looking at the matter of how we address the fundamental fairness of prosecuting these defendants. We're going to do what's right.''

Most of the men had pleaded guilty to drug charges, but prosecutors said they lack the evidence needed to convict them if the cases were to go to trial.

In recent weeks, a special federal prosecutor and an investigator spent hours listening to France, hoping to determine how a massive drug investigation, spearheaded by the DEA, became a debacle.

France said she believes her trouble began when one of her friends introduced her to the man the friend dated _ Bray. He scared France immediately, bragging about how he could stuff her in a trunk, take her to Cleveland and no one would ever hear from her again.

He also asked France out for a date. She refused.

At 6 a.m. Nov. 10, 2005, federal agents pounded on her door. She opened it, and authorities burst in, placing her youngest daughter, Leelasha, on the couch as they searched for drugs. They found nothing.

``I didn't know what to think,'' France said. “I was getting my children ready for school when all of a sudden people start screaming, ‘Where are the drugs?’ There were no drugs.”

France had never been in trouble. In court, she refused a plea agreement of three or four years in prison, went to trial and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Bray, acting as informant for the DEA, and Lucas said they bought more than 50 grams of crack cocaine from her about 2 p.m. Oct. 25, 2005, a time when France said she was braiding a friend's hair.

No surveillance photos, which are standard in tracking drug dealers, were taken in France's case.

It was her word against Lucas'.

``There he was, this big DEA agent who had worked in Bolivia, and there I was, this woman from Mansfield,'' France said.

France spent time in prisons in West Virginia and Kentucky and earned 12 cents an hour cleaning. For every three hours of work, she earned enough money to pay for one minute of talking to her daughters on the phone.

``I thought I was going to be in prison for 10 years, and I just gave up,'' she said.

Finally, in May, the case unraveled. Bray got in a fight while selling marijuana on Cleveland's West Side and shot a man. Stewing in jail, Bray admitted that he lied about France, saying she never sold any drugs and shouldn't be in prison. On June 29, federal prosecutors asked a judge to release her immediately.

France walked out of federal prison with $68 and a bus ticket. Her landlord had evicted her from the rental during her incarceration, and everything she owned had been tossed on the street.

It was unsettling seeing her children, Kyelia, 8; Kateria, 6; and Leelasha, 3. Her older children loved her, but they couldn't understand why she was gone. Her youngest daughter didn't recognize her and wouldn't go near her.

Lucas, the DEA agent, has declined to speak about the case. Bray has been sentenced to 15 years in prison for perjury and violating civil rights related to the Mansfield cases.

He is cooperating with the U.S. Justice Department's internal investigation of the case. His attorney, John McCaffrey, has urged a detailed look into how the DEA handled Bray.

Information from: The Plain Dealer, http://www.cleveland.com





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