Leon's Empty Day in Court
Even without his state police uniform, Van Jackson makes an impression. He is the physical epitome of a state trooper. At six feet five inches and 200-plus pounds, the former cop carries himself with the composed grace of an athlete. Despite the dignity of his well-cut pin-striped suit, however, he could not maintain the gravity called for last Tuesday in the courthouse; in the end, Van Jackson stood there grinning. Caught terrorizing the family of Leon Woodward because of the Woodwards' outspoken political beliefs, ex-Department of Public Safety Officer Van Jackson smiled after the charges against him went up in smoke.
On September 12, County Attorney Richard Romley decided that even the slap on the wrist the disgraced state policeman faced was too severe.
Consequently, the first petty misdemeanor count was dropped altogether by the prosecutor and Van Jackson was allowed to plead "no contest" to the second charge.
After the death threats, the campaign of intimidation, the harassing phone calls at three in the morning, the dirty-tricks intelligence file, the covert surveillance, after the entire sordid tale of the state police targeting a private citizen for retribution, Van Jackson walked out of court with a $685 fine.
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. San Antonio Spurs
TicketsMon., Oct. 3, 7:00pm
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. Utah Jazz
TicketsWed., Oct. 5, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. San Jose Sharks
TicketsFri., Oct. 7, 7:00pm
TicketsSat., Oct. 8, 7:00pm
No jail. No confession. No guilty plea. And no admission of who else at DPS was involved.
The man who spoke out about the abuses he perceived within DPS and thereby became the focus of state police vengeance, Leon Woodward, adamantly opposed the plea agreement. But no one was particularly interested in what the victim wanted.
The collapse by the County Attorney's Office occurred the same day that the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to punish anyone who burns a flag with a year in jail and fines up to $100,000. Apparently a lunatic with a Zippo lighter who torches a flag is seen as a bigger threat to the republic than state police officers who use their staggering authority to cow outspoken citizens.
Nor is it merely County Attorney Romley who is prepared to look the other way when rogue cops terrorize a citizen for vigorously exercising basic rights of free speech.
A secretary in the editorial office of this newspaper asked after the first column on Woodward and the state police, "Why are you defending a loudmouth like Leon? He's such a jerk."
After the second column, reader Pat Kent wrote to New Times: "In last week's episode of Leon the persecuted, a statement by his wife spoke volumes: `Leon, what have you done?' After all, his wife should know him better than anyone. I have heard this nasty, vulgar person many times on radio, in person and on TV. I'm sure he has many enemies out there. Why not give them equal time in your paper? It could go on for months." Even an attorney who has represented this newspaper and whose wife has marched in the streets of Phoenix to promote racial harmony had no sympathy for Woodward. If you don't want the state police to call you at three in the morning, that's easy: Don't irritate the cops, said the lawyer.
I reminded my friend that we weren't discussing some hothead who flipped off a motorcycle cop and then wondered why he'd been given a speeding ticket.
Leon Woodward believes that the state police are out of control. He thinks that DPS and Colonel Ralph Milstead organized a coup d'etat to overthrow the legally elected governor of Arizona, Evan Mecham. He may be obnoxious, but since Leon Woodward believes that the state police dumped Mecham, his protests are as American as apple pie.
And that's another thing, countered the lawyer. If the state police got rid of Evan Mecham, we ought to be grateful. Do you remember what this state was like when that man ran the show?
Of course I remember.
Mecham's term was marked by an unprecedented insensitivity to Jews, working women, homosexuals and minorities of all color. He defended the term "pickaninny" in reference to black children and revoked the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
State government ground to a halt.
Even fellow Republicans were appalled at the conditions in Arizona.
Representative Chris Herstam of Phoenix in early October 1987: "What is more important: the political survival of Evan Mecham or the long-term future of this state?"
Then-House Majority Whip Jane Dee Hull in late October 1987: "The state is becoming paralyzed, not from a lack of government services but from the crisis a day that comes from the governor's office." She added: "I want to warn you that I do not think the last shoe has fallen."
His appointments to administrative posts included former felons, those with legal clouds over their heads and others who had been or would be indicted. Mecham's adviser on education defended the position that it was a right of schoolchildren to believe the Earth was flat. Arizona became a national disgrace.
And now Mecham is back.
In April, Mecham held a press conference to announce that he was running once again for the governor's office. Cheering as loud as anyone at that kickoff celebration was Leon Woodward. And as the Republican primary continues to stack up with candidates, Mecham's chances continue to improve.
Tomorrow the former governor's lawyer will argue before the state Supreme Court that the impeachment of Evan Mecham was illegal and ought to be overturned. Mecham's attorney also represents the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr., James Earl Ray.
Like the Jews in Skokie, Illinois, faced with Nazis marching down main street, people of moderate intentions in Arizona have had to confront their own emotions regarding the constitutional protections afforded Evan Mecham and Leon Woodward. Is it really okay for the state police to terrorize a family as long as the head of the household supports Mecham?
Any restriction on free speech " . . . must be based on more than fear, on more than passionate opposition against the speech, on more than a revolted dislike for its contents . . . ."
Former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote that.
It is astounding that moderates and liberals in Arizona are prepared to forget those eloquent words when it comes to Evan Mecham and his followers.
No one said boo when DPS moved in with a heavy hand and arrested two of Mecham's witnesses during last year's impeachment hearings.
And now there is little outrage over the campaign of harassment directed at Leon Woodward and his family.
Douglas also said that " . . . the right to be left alone is the beginning of all freedom."
Apparently, County Attorney Richard Romley figures the violation of that fundamental right of Leon Woodward's is worth only a small fine.
The courthouse at 125 West Washington has an elegant, stately exterior, but that is only the veneer. The inside of the building is combed with depressing hallways where troubled individuals seek justice. Leon Woodward arrived alone for his day of reckoning.
The plea agreement took only four minutes in front of visiting Judge Walter Bloom.
Before Leon Woodward knew what hit him, justice was done.
Responding to the suggestion that Van Jackson was getting away with a very nasty crime, County Attorney Romley told me there was no other way to charge the guy. He offered to show me the book of statutes to buttress his position. Weeks ago I asked a former county attorney to review the police report on Van Jackson. He later sent an eighteen-page memo outlining a variety of charges that could have been filed against Jackson. He advised that in order to make the officer willingly talk about who else within DPS was involved in the campaign of terror, prosecutors should have offered Jackson immunity from prosecution in return for the full story. Otherwise, Jackson should have faced jail time.
Instead, County Attorney Romley lightly slapped Van Jackson with two petty misdemeanors and then pleaded those out. Not surprisingly, the former DPS officer is sticking to his story that he acted alone. Of course he did not act alone is the opinion of the former county attorney who'd read the evidence in the Phoenix police report.
After the plea agreement was approved by Judge Bloom, I caught up with Van Jackson and his attorney Jerry Stahnke in the courthouse offices.
I informed them that I had just obtained a summary from the state police of DPS' internal investigation.
Van Jackson told his superiors he was parked in front of the Woodward home when the Phoenix police arrived to investigate the death threats.
If Van Jackson was in his car in front of the Woodward home, then who made the two harassing calls to Leon that the Phoenix cop overheard after his arrival?
Van Jackson's attorney was so startled that he actually stuttered, "N . . . N . . . No comment."
Van Jackson looked at me, smiled broadly and winked. Two days later, James Keppel, chief of staff for County Attorney Romley, explained that he has reopened the investigation into what happened to Leon Woodward at the hands of DPS. Keppel said that he intends to interview every witness connected with the case during the next thirty days.
One cynical view is that Keppel's investigation is merely a smoke screen to cover Romley's actions. After doing the interviews, the county attorney can say that nothing new surfaced but at least they left no stone unturned.
We will all know in a month.
Then we will see if Van Jackson is still smiling.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.