LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Former judge David Lanier is in the midst of a letter-writing campaign to area residents asking for their support in his quest for a federal pardon.
In an interview with the State Gazette, the disgraced former Dyer County Chancery Court judge said the federal government is unfairly victimizing him with the 25-year sentence he is currently serving. "It's wrong, just wrong," said Lanier, who in 1993 was convicted on charges of sexual assault and civil rights violations.
"Nowhere in the world is anyone being punished like I am for what I did," he said. "The federal government, the FBI, the judges - they are all trying to keep me from pursuing my rights. Twenty-five years is a death sentence for me." Lanier, 67, is six years into a 25-year sentence he was given in 1993 after a federal criminal trial in which he was convicted on sexual assault charges against several women who appeared before him as litigants or who worked for him as clerks, probation officers or secretaries. The civil rights charge was assessed because of Lanier's position as a judge, said the federal case, and that his actions were "under color of law."
Lanier said he has apologized for his actions. "I said I was sorry to my family, my church and the community," he said. "I truly am. I am sorry for the women and I have asked them to forgive me for what I did." However, when asked if he is contrite for the specific criminal acts for which he was convicted, Lanier said he is sorry for what he did wrong, "but I did nothing criminal. My sins were between God and me."
Lanier has been housed in the Federal Medical Center in Lexington, Ky., for three years, where he shares a cell with a French-speaking Haitian native in prison on immigration charges.
"And before that it was a man in here for dealing drugs. Before that, a bank robber," Lanier said. "And me here, with people like that. It's a wonder I haven't been killed already."
Lanier said he keeps busy reading in the prison's library "but so many pages are missing by people who tear them out to file their case." He is taking classes on translating the written word to Braille. "It's not easy, but it takes my mind off this place," he said.
Lanier had served less than three years in federal custody in Talladega, Ala. when the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court in Cincinnati, Ohio agreed with his petition that the Memphis court erred when it found him guilty on the civil rights charges. He was released on his own recognizance in June 1995. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sent the case back to the Sixth Circuit, where the decision it had reached more than two years earlier was reversed in August 1997. Lanier was ordered to turn himself in to federal custody to resume serving the 25-year penalty.
Lanier, who was living in Dyersburg, refused to surrender and fled to Mexico. nnn "It was a stupid thing to do," Lanier said of his flight. "But what would you have done? I was scared and I did not want to go back to prison. It was a death sentence." Lanier was hiding in an apartment in Ensenada, Mexico, some 40 miles south the U.S. border.
He recalls how he was caught. "I was leaving the post office before noon when I noticed something was going on. I just got in my car and began to drive back home. I looked in my rearview mirror and I could see the federales running out of the post office. Then one of them pointed in my direction and I thought 'Well, this is it.' "I didn't try to run," Lanier said. "I just put my hands on the steering wheel and waited."
He was deported later that night and released into the custody of the U.S. Marshals Office in San Diego. "I'll say one thing about that," he said. "When I was in Mexico, I had a watch on my wrist. When I crossed the border, it was gone. The federales stole my watch."
From his cell, Lanier is mailing single-page, photocopied letters to Dyersburg-area residents pleading for a letter-writing campaign on his behalf. Starting the typewritten letter with a handwritten "Hi folks," Lanier is asking for pages of the local telephone directory to be sent to him so he can spread his message. Prison authorities will not allow him to have a full telephone directory. "Just in case you, your children, spouse, parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends would like to write a brief letter saying my sentence is too harsh under the circumstances," the letter reads, "and that I should be granted immediate release with time served ..."
Lanier has been actively seeking a pardon or commutation of his sentence for years, but in recent months his quest has taken on an added urgency. "I am going to die if I stay in here," he said. "That fact is hard on me and I want to get out. What are they afraid of? I have no money, I have no political machine, I have no reason to get back at anyone."
In January, Lanier received a letter, scrawled in broken English, asking for $100,000 to obtain a pardon from then-president Bill Clinton. He turned it over to the FBI, suspecting a former cellmate had sent it to harass him. "But it made me think," Lanier said. "If I had that kind of money, I could have bought a pardon."
The status of Lanier's pardon cannot be confirmed except that the federal Office of the Pardon Attorney has received his request. A spokesman for the office said it is policy not to comment on pending matters. "The fact that they have it is all I have to hope," Lanier said. "If enough people write to the president and the pardon attorney saying the way I have been treated is wrong, then I have a chance. A chance is all I want."
Lanier said he hopes the government's case can be overturned by popular opinion. Steve Parker, the Assistant U.S. Attorney in Memphis who led the 1992 prosecution of Lanier, said the government is not going to support any move in that direction. "The bottom line is this: The U.S. is opposed to any release by Mr. Lanier," said Parker. "We know he had made numerous misstatements stating that we would, but that is simply not true."
To help gain public support for his attempt to be released, Lanier has sent an emissary to find the three accusers who assisted the federal case against him. James Black, of Huntington, W.Va., whom Lanier describes "as a long-time friend," has attempted to approach the three women whose stories most influenced his sentence.
During the interview, Lanier said Black had contacted the women - Vivian Archie, Patty Wallace and Sandy Sanders - and received assurances that they bear no grudge against him.
"He is a liar," Archie said when contacted by the State Gazette at the law firm where she works as a paralegal in Orlando, Fla. "He continues to be out of his mind," Archie said. "He's disgusting. There is no way I would consent to his release or even any attempt by him to do anything less than his sentence. It's absurd and he's crazy." "It's not true," said Wallace, who was approached by Black earlier this year. Wallace said Black expressly told her that Lanier did not know he was working on the convicted judge's behalf.
Sandy Sanders said she has forgiven Lanier. "But I do think he needs to serve the time - all of it."
Lanier has filed more than two dozens civil actions, complaints and motions in his case in the Memphis court where he was sentenced and to the Sixth U.S. District Court in Cincinnati.
"I have a good background in the legal system," Lanier said. "I am using what I have to make the case that my sentence is unfair - not that I did not do wrong, but that I was unfairly sentenced for what I did." Lanier's latest legal tactic - attacking his sentence as extreme - has been propelled by his opinion that the 25-year sentence, combined with his age and failing health, will sway the courts in his favor and reduce the time. In November 2000, Lanier filed a motion with the Sixth U.S. Circuit seeking to modify the sentence, using the argument that the underlying offense should be changed from interfering with a person's civil rights by aggravated assault to a lesser charge.
It was denied. In January and February 2001, Lanier filed motions in U.S. District Court in Memphis to attempt to force a recalculation of his sentence. In June, he filed a supplement to the motion, arguing that his sentence was unconstitutional. Last week, the Memphis court imposed restrictions on any further motions by Lanier.
"Unless ordered by a higher court," the Nov. 24 order reads, "this Court need not consider any further filings from this defendant to attack his conviction or sentence ..." The action effectively keeps Lanier from filing any further civil actions in the court that sentenced him in 1993.