MANSFIELD, Ohio -- A real-life version of "The Shawshank Redemption" is playing out in this blue-collar town where the 1994 prison movie was filmed.
Federal judges, acting on an unprecedented request from a prosecutor, have freed 16 Mansfield residents from prison because of an undercover drug investigation that turned into a law-enforcement scandal.
U.S. Attorney Greg White of Cleveland said their convictions for selling crack cocaine were tainted by an informant who admits framing innocent people.
Mr. White does not call the Mansfield defendants innocent, but he says the cases against them were built on lies. He said he had to let them out of prison because they were wrongly convicted.
"The government has an obligation to do the right thing. The truth matters," Mr. White said in a recent interview.
In all, the discredited drug sting in Mansfield resulted in prosecutions of 26 people. The cases against 23 have been dismissed by judges or have ended in acquittals by juries. This month alone, 15 men came home from prison.
Some of them testified last week before a federal grand jury in Cleveland that is investigating how the drug cases in Mansfield spiraled out of control.
The Department of Justice appointed Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Teitelbaum of Pittsburgh as special prosecutor in the Mansfield inquiry. Mr. Teitelbaum says he is focusing on drug investigations in which federal and local law officers used a convicted killer named Jerrell Bray as their paid informant.
Mr. Bray, 36, says he lied with impunity to implicate Mansfield residents in drug crimes. Worse, he says, law officers, led by a federal agent named Lee Lucas, helped him railroad many of those people into convictions.
Mr. Bray pleaded guilty in December to two counts of perjury and five charges of violating the civil rights of Mansfield defendants. Sentenced to 15 years in prison, he has agreed to help in the ongoing investigation of the Mansfield cases. By cooperating he could reduce his sentence to 11 years.
Agent Lucas, a controversial, globe-trotting member of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, oversaw the investigations involving Mr. Bray. Agent Lucas did not respond to requests for an interview. A DEA spokesman in Washington, D.C., declined to comment.
Those who were freed from prison are doing plenty of talking, in Mansfield and before the grand jury. They say Agent Lucas lied about them during trials and hearings.
Geneva France, a mother of three who had never been in trouble with the law, said Agent Lucas' testimony helped send her to prison.
"I've never even used drugs, so I sure didn't sell them," Ms. France said. "I never saw Lucas until I was indicted and he walked into court. He had a ponytail and he said I sold him crack."
The purported amount was 2.5 ounces, enough to make the charges against her federal offenses that carried a prison sentence of up to 20 years. Assistant U.S. Attorney Blas Serrano offered her a plea bargain that could have landed her on probation or limited her prison term to one to six years.
Crying, terrified and irate, Ms. France refused the deal. She said she would not confess to a crime she did not commit.
At her trial in Cleveland, jurors heard two experienced law officers testify that they watched Ms. France sell crack to Mr. Bray. One was a Richland County sheriff's detective named Chuck Metcalf. The other was Agent Lucas, who worked on drug enforcement details in Florida and Bolivia before returning to his native Ohio.
Jurors believed the officers' testimony over that of Ms. France, a high school dropout who was then 22 years old. A judge sentenced her to 10 years in prison.
She served 16 months before Mr. Bray, by then jailed in a shooting in Cleveland, confessed that he had fabricated the story about Ms. France selling him drugs. Mr. Bray would make many more admissions that would undo most of the Mansfield convictions.
Ms. France, now 25, said she is still unsure why Mr. Bray set her up. The government paid him for each case he made, so his motive could have been money. But she thinks it was personal. Mr. Bray once asked her on a date and she rebuffed him.
James D. Owen, a lawyer representing her in a civil lawsuit against various police agencies, said law officers allowed their corrupt informant to run wild, then backed him up with perjured testimony.
"Defense lawyers call this 'testi-lying,'" he said.
He said sheriff's detectives in Richland County, where Mansfield is located, had been trying without much success to arrest cocaine dealers. They asked for help from the federal government in 2005. The DEA dispatched Agent Lucas from Cleveland to clean up Mansfield, a town of 50,000.
Soon after the arrival of Agent Lucas, law officers made the series of 26 arrests.
"It was like Super Cop came to town. Cases that could not be made were made in a few months by Lee Lucas," said Carlos Warner, a federal public defender who helped break the Mansfield scandal.
Mr. Bray, who had served 14 years in prison for manslaughter, teamed up with Agent Lucas by chance.
Mr. Bray had settled in Mansfield, his wife's hometown, after his release from prison. Court records show that the Richland County Sheriff's Department hired him as an informant in January 2005. When the drug task force mobilized, he began working with Agent Lucas, sheriff's officers and Jamaal Ansari, a Cleveland police detective sent to help with undercover drug investigations in Mansfield.
Richland County Sheriff J. Steve Sheldon declined to be interviewed about the tainted cases, but he issued a statement last week saying his detectives did nothing improper.
Many of those who were wrongly imprisoned tell a different story. They say in civil lawsuits that Sheriff's Detective Metcalf lied under oath about them selling drugs. They say his testimony -- or the threat of it -- proved powerful in winning over juries or obtaining guilty pleas from the accused.
Most of the Mansfield suspects had prior convictions for selling drugs. Many pleaded guilty in the new round of charges in exchange for reduced prison sentences instead of taking their chances at trials in which decorated law officers would testify against them.
Joe Ward, 29, was just out of prison on a firearms conviction when Agent Lucas went undercover in Mansfield. Mr. Ward said those running the drug task force targeted him because of his record, which included a drug conviction 10 years ago.
Agent Lucas testified that he saw Mr. Ward sell crack to Mr. Bray outside an elementary school.
"It never happened. He lied about me, but I was willing to plead guilty anyway," Mr. Ward said.
His reason was that agents also implicated his mother, Johnnie Parker, in the crack case.
"I said I would take a sentence of seven years if they dropped the charges against my mom," Mr. Ward said.
Prosecutors offered him a deal he did not accept -- 15 years in prison. Ultimately, Mr. Ward and his mother were acquitted at a trial in Akron.
Joshawa Webb, another of the Mans- field defendants, said Agent Lucas and Detective Metcalf often targeted the right people. But, Mr. Webb said, law officers framed the guilty instead of doing the police work necessary to bring legitimate charges against them.
"I was dirty. I was selling drugs. But I didn't do what they said I did," Mr. Webb said in an interview.
Agent Lucas alleged that Mr. Webb sold him three ounces of crack. Because Mr. Webb, 29, had two prior convictions, he faced life in prison if convicted.
The only white charged in the Mansfield cases, Mr. Webb readily admits he sold powder cocaine and marijuana to a small circle of customers. Mr. Webb, though, said he never sold crack to anybody.
Denied bail, Mr. Webb sat in jail for 21 months awaiting trial. The case against him finally collapsed because of an audiotape that law officers said linked Mr. Webb to the drug deal. He told his lawyer the tape had been altered.
Mr. Warner, the federal defender who represented Mr. Webb, said he initially did not believe his client. But after two experts concluded that the tape indeed had been doctored, Mr. Warner made a move that tore open the Mansfield scandal.
He confronted Mr. Bray, who was then in jail, and elicited a startling confession. Mr. Bray said the Mansfield drug cases were an elaborate hoax that had ensnared people for crimes they did not commit.
Prosecutors later discovered that a man named Jeremiah Conrad, a friend of Mr. Bray's, had been the drug dealer in the crime wrongly attributed to Mr. Webb. Even more shocking, Mr. Conrad said, the drug sale had been staged by Mr. Bray. It was part of a scheme to wrongly implicate Mr. Webb.
Unlike most of the defendants, Mr. Webb says he believes just about everybody who was charged was guilty of something.
"If they would have done the case right, they would have put me away," he said. "Now we can all play innocent."
Roosevelt Williams, another of the Mansfield defendants who was wrongly charged in the cocaine investigation, has since been convicted of other drug crimes and charged with a murder in Kentucky.
Still other defendants in Mansfield say they had committed drug crimes years earlier, but were leading honest lives when they were targeted by law officers.
Dwayne Nabors, 35, described as "the kingpin" of the Mansfield drug case when the indictments came down, has a felony record. He said he had been clean for years when Agent Lucas and other officers said they saw him selling crack to Mr. Bray.
Mr. Nabors ran a successful auto detailing shop before being charged. Mr. Bray often hung around his store, but seldom bought anything. Mr. Nabors said he now realizes that the undercover informant was there because the store was a gathering place for young blacks, many of whom drove fancy cars and had been in trouble with the law.
Jurors acquitted Mr. Nabors of being involved in a drug conspiracy, and they deadlocked on the charge that he sold drugs. But they convicted him of illegal possession of firearms. Officers found two guns in his home when they raided it in the drug case.
His conviction was thrown out because of the scandal, but by then Mr. Nabors had served two years in prison and lost his business.
"I'm a lot more humble now," he said.
Wes Ballard, 33, another man with felony drug convictions on his record, said officers perjured themselves to bring trumped-up charges against him.
He admits he was not entirely law-abiding in recent years, but says his crimes were small ones.
"I messed around and sold a little pot, but it was nothing on the magnitude of the FBI or DEA getting involved," Mr. Ballard said.
His life changed forever when the U.S. government indicted him for selling 4.5 ounces of crack to Agent Lucas and Mr. Bray. Mr. Ballard sat in jail for 10 months awaiting his trial in Akron.
Videotapes of alleged drug deals were rarely made in the Mansfield investigations. But prosecutors told the jury they had video of Mr. Ballard selling crack to Mr. Bray and Agent Lucas.
The tape, though, ended up exonerating Mr. Ballard.
Mr. Ballard is rail thin and 6 feet 5 inches tall. The man on the tape was heavier and 8 inches shorter. Jurors concluded that the man in the video was not Mr. Ballard, but another "stand-in" that Mr. Bray had used to set him up.
They acquitted Mr. Ballard, but he said the damage was already done.
"My wife had a miscarriage during all this," he said.
A father of six, he says he is struggling financially. He works at his family's restaurant but says many in town refuse to believe that he makes his living honestly.
"Mansfield is a small town. There's a stigma on me."
Mr. White, the U.S. attorney, is leaving office this week to become a federal judge. He says he is confident his prosecutors did not know they were presenting dishonest cases.
Mr. Ballard said the videotape used against him was such a blatant fabrication that it should have made prosecutors skeptical. But he is most angry at Agent Lucas and other lawmen, saying they were no better than the criminals they supposedly were pursuing.
"If you were black and driving a nice car with rims, you were on their list," he said. "I want everybody who was involved held accountable."
Milan Simonich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1956. First Published February 24, 2008 5:00 AM