Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Two witnesses refuse to testify in meth-sting lawsuit

The Ledger-Enquirer

Rome, GA (AP) - Two anonymous witnesses refused to come forward Monday, dealing a blow to a lawsuit by defense lawyers who claim that a sweeping drug sting in northwest Georgia unfairly targeted South Asian merchants.

Defense attorneys said the two, who were ordered by a federal judge to testify if their evidence was to be considered, backed out at the last minute.

"It's human," said Graham Boyd, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer. "They're going to get nervous. They're going to get cold feet."

Boyd tried to salvage some of the testimony - outlined in an affidavit that does not identify the witnesses - by trying to call another witness: a government informant named John Edward Ross who volunteered to talk.

Federal prosecutors objected that they weren't prepared to cross-examine Ross, and U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy agreed. He did, however, set another hearing Thursday morning to question him.

The ACLU wants Murphy to toss out the cases against dozens of South Asian merchants indicted last year in Operation Meth Merchant, a sting designed to send a message to retailers knowingly selling methamphetamine-related products to drug makers.

The group contends that prosecutors and police selectively targeted South Asians during an 18-month investigation that aimed to curb the sale of household products used to manufacture methamphetamines, while ignoring white-owned stores in the drug sting.

Beginning in early 2004, 15 undercover agents were sent to small grocery stores, tobacco shops and delis in six remote northwest Georgia counties.

Once there, prosecutors said the informants were sold products ranging from antifreeze to pseudoephedrine even after the informants told the clerks - sometimes using slang terms - that they planned to make meth.

The investigation raised eyebrows when 44 of the 49 retail clerks and convenience store owners indicted were South Asian, including many who shared the last name Patel. All but one of the 24 implicated stores were owned by South Asians.

In an area where roughly 20 percent of the 600 retailers are owned by South Asians, critics said authorities were "scapegoating" minorities.

The ACLU had said previously it would offer testimony from two anonymous witnesses, including a meth manufacturer who claims to have been an informant during the police sting.

That informant said in an affidavit he told police he bought his supplies from white-owned stores but was ordered to make undercover purchases at South Asian stores. He was prepared to testify at the hearing, but Boyd said he decided to stay quiet after his attorney advised against coming forward.

The sting has so far yielded 43 guilty pleas - 30 from individuals and another 13 from corporations. Another 11 cases have been tossed, prosecutors said.

David Nahmias, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, denied claims that prosecutors intentionally targeted South Asian merchants and said attorneys were assessing each case on its own merits. He said federal law makes clear that it is illegal for merchants to sell products knowing - or with reason to believe - that they could be used to produce drugs.

"The United States Attorney's Office prosecutes cases based on the evidence and the law - not the defendant's race, ethnicity, or last name," Nahmias said in a statement.

By Greg Bluestein


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