Everyone around the old Bisbee courthouse expected former Maricopa County Attorney Tom Collins to have a cakewalk in his first trial as rural Cochise County's first full-time drug prosecutor.
They were wrong.
On its face, the marijuana-for-sale case against three Mexican men seemed open-and-shut, quite unlike the Collins-led "drug probe" fiasco of 1987 involving members of the Phoenix Suns. (That "scandal" went nowhere.)
The trio of suspected Mexican druggies had been nabbed earlier this year at a Sierra Vista home, in which almost a ton of pot sat in neat bundles. In fact, 2,000 pounds of marijuana and a police scanner were all that local narcs found when they raided the middle-class residence--no furniture, no food, not even any rolling papers.
Two of the suspects confessed to the cops that the third man--who had rented the home and was arrested as he parked at the home--had paid them to load, guard and unload the illegal weed.
The three were indicted on felony charges of possessing marijuana for sale and were held for a short time at the Cochise County Jail in lieu of $29,000 bond each. Thanks to an unknown benefactor, they all made bail and were ordered to report to court a few weeks ago for trial.
Three Tucson defense attorneys, hired courtesy of that mystery friend, made the trek to Bisbee for the trial. But the defendants, likely fearing a quick guilty verdict and subsequent prison sentence, decided not to show up. Their trial went on without them.
A sure conviction, huh? Just say no.
A jury acquitted the alleged ringleader after deliberating only about an hour. His two associates were found guilty only of simple possession of pot--about two-and-a-half million joints of the stuff--according to prosecutor Collins. The weed's street value conservatively has been estimated at more than $500,000.
The surprise verdict has been big news down in drug-infested Cochise County, a border area where big drug busts are the norm and dope cases are clogging the local courtrooms.
"We all thought it was pretty much a done deal," Collins says in his Tennessee drawl, which seems to have become more pronounced since he exiled himself to southeastern Arizona's hinterlands. "What I forgot, or neglected, was that jurors don't really understand the legal concept of possession for sale. I didn't spend enough time explaining that, I think.
"Nobody at the trial argued it was personal use--I mean, 2,000 pounds is an awful lot of `personal use,' wouldn't you say? But that's in effect what two of the men were convicted of. It's hard to say exactly why the jury did what it did."
No one who attended the dope trial has anything too nasty to say about Collins' performance. Some prefer to damn him with faint praise.
"Tom might have been a little rusty in this one, that's all," one long-time courthouse observer noted. That was the most critical remark about Collins' maiden voyage into hands-on prosecution. (Big-time county attorneys in Arizona rarely spend time in courtrooms.) "But he still didn't do that bad a job."
Collins, the Maricopa County attorney for eight years, decided last year not to run for a third term. He insists he is thrilled to be finished with Phoenix, where things had soured professionally and personally for him. Bisbee, he says, is home now, and he's just rented a place in the lovely old mining town.
"I don't even read the paper down here--I just work and work out," he says. "Everybody is very kind here--there's not the `I'm gonna get you' mentality everybody gets caught up in up there. When I drive up I-10 and get to the Gila River, and I see this ugly gray cloud of schmuck up ahead, I just shake my head. That's Phoenix for me.
"I don't miss it for a second. There's a lot of reasons not to live in Phoenix, and I'm just happy where I am. I'll just be glad to get some convictions under my belt down here."
"When I drive up I-10 and get to the Gila River, and I see this ugly gray cloud of schmuck up ahead, I just shake my head.