In January 1992, Clay Murray was arrested in Texas on state drug charges after he was found in possession of more than 80 grams of cocaine. In exchange for leniency, Murray agreed to cooperate with state and federal law enforcement authorities in California and Louisiana—particularly in the area of his native Monroe, Louisiana.
When federal drug agents informed Murray that Eddie Cooks, a longtime acquaintance of Murray in Monroe, was under investigation, Murray agreed to approach Cooks.
Murray reached out to Cooks and set up a deal to purchase two ounces of crack cocaine. Agents equipped Murray with a hidden recording device and gave him cash. On January 15, 1992, Murray met with Cooks and made the purchase. After listening to the tape, agents had Murray arrange for another purchase.
Two weeks later, Murray and Kendrick Van Buren, an undercover officer, met with Cooks. At that time, Murray met privately with Cooks and in a conversation that was again recorded, Cooks agreed to sell Murray another two ounces of crack cocaine.
On February 14, 1992, Van Buren and Murray returned to make the purchase. On this occasion, Van Buren was wearing a recorder, but Murray was not. At this meeting, 29-year-old Artis Clemmons also was present with Cooks. At one point, Murray and Clemmons went into a bathroom. After Van Buren and Murray left, Murray said that he got the crack from Clemmons while they were in the bathroom. This exchange was not recorded on tape and was not seen by Van Buren.
Cooks and Clemmons were indicted by a federal grand jury in December 1992 on charges of conspiracy and distribution of crack cocaine.
They went on trial before a jury in U.S. District Court in the Western District of Louisiana. Prior to the trial, the prosecution filed a motion to limit defense cross-examination of Murray regarding his prior arrests and personal drug use. U.S. District Court Judge Tucker Melancon ruled that Murray could be cross-examined about the circumstances and his motivations in relation to his cooperation with law enforcement in Texas. The judge, however, barred defense attorneys from questioning Murray about a purse-snatching arrest in Louisiana that occurred after he began cooperating with authorities or from questioning Murray about the penalties he faced if he was convicted of the Texas or Louisiana charges.
On March 8, following Murray’s testimony, Cooks and Clemmons were convicted of conspiracy and distribution of crack cocaine.
Before sentencing, defense lawyers filed a motion for new trial, arguing that the judge had erroneously limited their cross-examination of Murray about his prior problems with the law and the potential that such evidence could have undercut his testimony.
Judge Melancon, noting that the only evidence against Clemmons was the testimony of Murray (Murray’s interaction with Clemmons was not recorded on tape), granted the motion as to Clemmons, but denied the motion as it pertained to Cooks because of the extensive tape recorded evidence. The judge noted that there were some recordings made with Clemmons present, but those recordings “fail to make even an inferential reference to the business of drug distribution.” Moreover, the judge said that “no state or federal officer actually saw Clemmons engage in any drug transaction.”
The prosecution appealed and in April 1995, the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the order granting a new trial for Clemmons and the denial of a new trial for Cooks. The Court of Appeals said that Judge Melancon’s limitation had prevented the airing of “important information pertinent to Murray’s reliability, namely his effort to avoid the consequences of his own crimes, which, given their seriousness and his recidivism, might have been very severe.” In fact, the court noted, Murray faced a sentence of 99 years in Texas and if convicted in Louisiana, he faced a possible 40-year sentence as a repeat offender.
On June 7, 1995, federal prosecutors dismissed the charges against Clemmons and he was released.
– Maurice Possley