According to the prosecution, it is a case of sex, lies and a damning videotape against an arrogant drug addict and compulsive womanizer who abused his powerful position. According to the defence, it is a case of racism against a heroic, if flawed, black leader relentlessly hounded by a spiteful white establishment. Those contrasting positions in the drugs and perjury trial of Marion Barry, the mayor of Washington, were rarely spelled out more clearly than in the opening remarks by the two sides last June. “This is a case about deceit and deception,” said the main prosecutor, assistant U.S. attorney Richard Roberts. “While the defendant was preaching ‘Down with dope!’ in our community, he was putting dope up his nose.” But defence lawyer Kenneth Mundy, alleging that Barry would not be on trial were he not the black mayor of a largely black city, retorted,
“This is a case about deals the government made with the devil.” Last Friday, after seven sensational weeks of testimony from 43 witnesses—and the viewing of an FBI videotape showing Barry smoking crack cocaine— the predominantly black female jury began to wrestle with those two wildly conflicting views.
Federal agents arrested Barry, 53, last January in an undercover sting operation, just days before he was scheduled to declare his candidacy for a fourth term as mayor of the national capital in November municipal elections. He was subsequently charged with 10 misdemeanor counts of possessing cocaine and one count of conspiracy to obtain and use the narcotic. As well, he faced three felony charges of lying to a grand jury in January, 1989, when he vehemently denied using illegal drugs. If convicted on all 14 charges, Barry, who announced in June that he would not seek re-election, faced up to 26 years in prison and more than $2 million in fines. The trial attracted national
media attention because, in a city that is besieged by drugs and has become the per capita murder capital of the United States, one of the country’s most prominent black politicians was caught smoking crack, a highly addictive cocaine derivative.
The highlight of the trial was a grainy 83-minute video shot by three concealed
cameras in a room at Washington’s Vista International Hotel, several blocks from the White House. As Barry’s wife of 12 years, Effi, sat impassively in the courtroom hooking a mg, the tape showed the mayor, who was lured to the hotel by Hazel (Rasheeda) Moore, an exlover turned FBI informant, fondling Moore’s breast, attempting to make love to her and finally taking two long drags of crack from a
pipe before federal agents burst into the room.
But that telltale videotape also sparked a heated debate over blacks in power and their ability to provide moral leadership to a community tom by economic and social problems. Opinion on the trial was so inflamed that many observers predicted an outburst of racial violence that has not been experienced in the United States since the race riots in 1968 following the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Said two-time Democratic presidential contender Jesse Jackson, who lives in Washington: “We’re very close to broken glass and blood in the streets. We’re very close to the red button.”
The warning light flashed with the polarized coverage of the trial by the mainstream media and the black press. To defence lawyer Mundy and many blacks, Barry was the target of a “lynch mob,” an overzealous white establish-
ment that had stalked its prey for a decade and spent $57 million in the process. “Blacks resent the idea of government spending so much money over 10 years to entrap Marion Barry,” said Wilbert Tatum, publisher of New York City’s influential, black-owned Amsterdam News. Many newspapers went further, declaring that Barry was the latest victim in a sinister “white plot” to frighten blacks from seek-
ing or holding public office.
Indeed, a 1987 study by Iowa State University sociologist Mary Sawyer, titled “A Report on the Harassment of Black Elected Officials—10 Years Later,” claimed that Barry was one of 70 black political figures whom the federal government has attempted to discredit. “There is a feeling nationally that black elected officials have been targeted for annihilation,” said Utrice Leid, editor of the Brooklyn City Sun. Added La Verne Gill, editor of Washington’s black MetroChronicle. “There’s a whole history of overzealous prosecutions of black leaders.”
As the defence rested its case on July 27 without having called Barry to the witness stand, assistant U.S. attorney Judith Retchin denied charges—made earlier by Mundy to the court out of the hearing of the jurors—that Barry was the victim of a special FBI “assault force” roaming the country and targeting black politicians.
“There is absolutely no truth to the allegation there is an FBI task force” as Mundy had charged, she told Federal Court Judge Thomas Jackson while the jury was out of the courtroom. She also denied Mundy’s allegation that FBI agent Ronald Stern, who had led the sting operation against Barry, headed the alleged “roving band” of federal agents.
While many observers criticized the sting operation, others accused leading black figures of cleverly manipulating the race issue for political advantage. They blamed black leaders for whipping up a racist frenzy to hide Barry’s
personal failures—as well as his deficiencies as mayor, since 1978, of a crime-ridden and decaying city.
Indeed, the capital is burdened with a $103million budget deficit, a 40-per-cent school dropout rate, the country’s worst rate of infant mortality and a record murder rate. “It is a betrayal of everything we fought for in the 1960s,” said civil rights activist Roger Wilkins. “Those were the days when we talked about black power, black pride and black excellence.” Added Wilkins, who is a senior fellow at the
Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, a private liberal think-tank: “Simply to scream ‘racism’ 50 times a day does not lift Marion Barry out of the cesspool he created for himself. Nor does it make his defenders saviors of the race. We must have standards in the black community.”
That sentiment was echoed throughout the seven-week trial by the prosecution. Relentlessly marshalling evidence that Barry had used illegal drugs on at least 200 occasions since 1983—and producing elaborate charts showing the times and places in hotels, boats and private homes that he allegedly indulged his habit— prosecutor Retchin likened the mayor to a general in charge of a war on drugs. The sting operation was necessary, she argued vehemently before the jury last week, because the general had crossed enemy lines and had betrayed his troops. Demanded Retchin: “How can we win the war when the general is helping the other side? You can’t win a war with a camp divided.”
Defence lawyer Mundy, however, hammered away at the credibility of the prosecution’s witnesses and at the vengeful might of the federal government. In his nearly three-hour closing speech to the jury last Thursday, Mundy said that many of the witnesses were “facile liars” who were paid informers granted immunity from prosecution in return for their testimony. And in a city already nervous about a racial backlash, he painted the trial as a $57-million witch-hunt to get black leaders. “The government in effect used a sledgehammer to kill a fly,” Mundy declared, urging the jury to acquit Barry of all charges. “He is being prosecuted because he’s the mayor.”
As the jury retired to consider its verdict, much more than the guilt or innocence of Marion Barry hung in the balance. There also remained many troubling questions about the equal carriage of justice in an increasingly racially polarized country.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.