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Justice finally done in Indian's case

By George Joseph in New York
October 14, 2005 18:57 IST
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US District Attorney David E Nahmias requested the courts last fortnight to dismiss charges that Siddharth Patel had sold over the counter components used in the manufacture of the drug methamphetamine.

And well he should -- Patel was over a thousand miles away when he supposedly committed the crime, and had photographic evidence to prove it.

In a case that has assumed racial overtones, Nahmias told the court Patel had been identified, erroneously, as the man who sold the components July 23, 2004 in Georgia, USA -- when it was conclusively proved that at the time, and on the date, in question, he was in New York.

Judge Harold L Murphy of the US District Court for the Northern Division District of Georgia, Rome Division, promptly dismissed the case.

This makes the third instance of a case being dismissed following the much-hyped 'Operation Meth Merchant', in which 44 Indian-American merchants were arrested in Georgia on similar charges.

Earlier, similar charges against Malvika Patel of Cleveland, Tennessee, and her husband Chirag Patel were withdrawn after McCracken Poston appeared as their attorney. Poston is also Siddharth Patel's attorney in the case.

In all three cases, it turned out that police relied on the testimony of a paid informer who was a convicted thief.

"Malvika Patel was picking up her young son from day care in Cleveland, Tennessee, at the exact moment this informant claimed she was behind the counter of a store in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia," Poston told rediff India Abroad. "Similarly, Chirag Patel was with his family in India at the time the informant claimed he was at the same store in December 2004."

Similarly, Siddharth Patel was working at a Subway outlet in Hicksville, New York, at the time the informant placed him in Whitfield County, Georgia, selling the components at Deep Springs Superette, a convenience store in the Varnell community of Whitfield County.

Poston said he could possibly file a civil case demanding compensation for Siddharth Patel's wrongful arrest and incarceration.

"What troubles me is how long it took for the prosecution to withdraw its case, when there was photographic evidence that Patel had been misidentified," Vanita Gupta, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, who shot to prominence when she defended 43 African Americans who were wrongfully arrested on drug charges in Tulia, Texas, told rediff India Abroad.

She said Nahmias needed to investigate the merits of the other Meth Merchant cases, to ensure that no one has been unjustly accused.

"This case reveals the problems with so-called eyewitness identification which the government often relies so heavily upon," Poston said. "In this case and at least two others, the same informant -- a convicted felon -- confidently 'identified' the suspects as the persons he had dealt with in the convenience stores.  He was either serially negligent and incompetent or maliciously reckless."

Siddharth Patel's nightmare began in July, when he was arrested at Newark Airport, New Jersey, on his return after getting married in India. He was taken to a detention facility in New Jersey, then to Oklahama, Atlanta, and ultimately to Floyd County Jail and produced in the court of the US Magistrate in Georgia.

He was denied the mandatory phone call option, while in NJ. In one of the jails he stayed in, he was offered meat though he is a strict vegetarian.

He lived on water, and was unable to change his clothes for days. Prison guards ridiculed him for being a 'Patel', he says.

Poston's suit to dismiss the case argued that the police informant had gone to the shop and bought the ingredients, while an FBI agent scanned the vehicles parked outside.

"Agents then scanned the parking lot for cars registered to persons with Indian-sounding names, and obtained drivers' license photos," Poston said.

Siddharth Patel's car was parked in the lot; he had left it behind when he moved to New York state, and it was at the time being used by Sudhirkumar Patel, the operator of the Deep Springs Suprette.

The informant, however, identified Siddharth Patel, from the driver's license photograph, as the person who had sold him the meth components.

Following his arrest and release on bond, Siddharth Patel meanwhile lived with his parents in North Carolina, with his movements restricted by court order.

The prosecution, Poston pointed out, was in possession of videotapes of the person who sold the components, and could have cleared Patel on that evidence.

However, the lawyer said, it insisted on interviewing Siddharth's alibi witnesses. Two witnesses had to shut their New York business for a few days and report to a federal grand jury in Atlanta.

"This process has been very intimidating and abusive to our alibi witnesses," Poston said, "and the message was clear to anyone who might want to offer alibi testimony for a defendant that to do so would not have an easy path."  

The components for making the drugs are medicines such as Sudafed, Tylenol Cold and Sinus. Selling several packs of these medicines to the same person is a Federal crime, which could result in up to 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

The attorney believes the prosecution delayed dismissing the case because it did not want such an action to cast doubt on the other prosecutions relating to Operation Meth Merchant.

The prosecution presented its own version of events in court, while calling for the case to be dismissed. It said FBI agents had met with Siddharth Patel's sister and brother-in-law in New York, and that both had identified Siddharth from the undercover video taken on July 23, 2004, though they could not explain how he could be in New York and Georgia at the same time.

The mystery was solved, the prosecution said, when investigators interviewed Sudhirkumar Patel; he identified the person in the video as one of his sons. 'This was the first time any witness had identified the person in the video as being someone other than the defendant,' the prosecution told the court.

'In prosecuting our cases, we continually assess the available evidence on each defendant,' the US Attorney's office said. 'If we determine based on the evidence available at the time that the charged defendant may have been misidentified or that a dismissal otherwise serves the interests of justice, we promptly dismiss the charges.  That is what we have done today regarding three defendants.'

"This was the only just outcome," Vanita Gupta, who earlier in September began taking an interest in the case, said. "There was simply no basis for Siddharth Patel's prosecution."

Gupta now plans to look into the remaining cases and, if necessary, work for the defendants; she believes there are similarities with the Tulia case she successfully defended two years ago.

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George Joseph in New York