Only the Little People Go to Prison

These days Marvin Cooley keeps working the black-metal gripper with his left hand.

Cooley is trying desperately to strengthen his left hand. A stroke he suffered this summer has affected his entire left side.

"I've got to get stronger before going back to prison," Cooley said. "I may have to defend myself in there. There are fights all the time, you know. It doesn't matter how old you are." Marvin Cooley is 62. He suffered the stroke shortly after a federal court jury found him guilty of failing to file proper tax returns.

So Cooley walks with a limp now. His speech is halting and slurred. He tires easily. In spite of these obvious danger signs, U.S. District Judge Roger Strand has turned down his request for a continuance and ordered him to report to prison October 2 to serve two consecutive one-year sentences.

The stress of the trial was a factor in his illness. Cooley acted as his own lawyer in a court battle that lasted two weeks. Despite suffering dizzy spells and other classic stroke symptoms, he continued with the case. Some nights he got less than three hours of sleep.

Cooley is nothing if not a stubborn and determined man. For most of his life he made his living as a farmer while raising ten children. He is patriotic and devoutly religious. He is the kind of man we used to point to when we talk about the kind of people that made this country great. For some reason, that kind of Americanism went out of style. Now Cooley is judged as a criminal by a country overrun with bureaucrats. "I just didn't take care of myself," Cooley told me when I went to see him in the hospital earlier this summer.

Now, driving out the Superstition Freeway to Cooley's Mesa home, I kept thinking this was a column I'd rather not have to write.

I had watched Cooley act as his own lawyer during the trial before Judge Strand. Cooley is a self-taught lawyer who spent much of his first term in prison reading law books. He vowed that he'd be able to defend himself the next time the Internal Revenue Service came after him. The trial was filled with dramatic moments if you have the strength to watch lost causes in action.

Cooley had so much at stake and the legal forces against him were so overwhelming.

The government's lawyer was a bulldog named Charles F. Hyder, himself once the Maricopa County attorney. Hyder was backed by a full office staff and the IRS staffers who sat with him at the prosecution table.

Cooley was all alone. His wife and children sat in the spectator's rows. In order to keep up with Hyder's gang, Cooley was obliged to type all his own motions and to stay up through the night preparing to interrogate the next day's witnesses. It was an impossible task. But Cooley had moments of victory.

One day, Cooley put his daughter, Cindy Taylor, 29, on the stand. He asked what she remembered about the tactics the IRS employed against her father.

"Do you recall receiving a phone call one night?" he asked.
"Yes," she said. "You were at a church social. The phone rang. Someone asked for you. I told them you and Mom were out.

"They asked if I was alone. I said that only my two younger brothers were with me." She took a deep breath and continued.

"`Good,' the man said, `because we're coming over to kill you.'" It was a moment that clearly impressed the jury. It showed them that everything people keep saying about the IRS being a runaway agency is founded on truth. But the jury found Cooley guilty anyway. The rules of evidence are such he never had a chance.

Now he must go to prison for the second time. In the 1970s, Cooley spent two years in the Federal Correctional Institution at Safford on a similar conviction.

As the leader of a national tax protest movement, Cooley was as big a target of the IRS as Leona Helmsley. Maybe he was even more important. He was a little man who was defying it. If other little men saw that Cooley could get away with his acts of defiance then the IRS would be finished.

Cooley lives in a long, rambling farmhouse with a circular driveway. A white German shepherd was lying peacefully in the front yard. I found Cooley sitting in a reclining chair in a corner of the long L-shaped living room. His left arm rested on a pillow.

"How are you?" I asked.
Cooley shook his head.
"My doctor says I could have another stroke anytime. Both of the carotid arteries in my neck that lead to my brain are blocked." "How was it when you went in for sentencing?" I asked.

"I expected the worst," Cooley said. "I didn't want to go in there begging." "Do you feel defeated?" Cooley raised his chin. He grinned.

"I feel like I won. They can't make me quit." The government charged that Cooley made an income of $64,000 in 1981 and $96,000 in 1982. They claimed this was derived from lectures and books in which he taught others how to avoid taxes.

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