No Lies, Please
Criminal defense attorney John Colette tackles the tough cases—but expects clients to tell him the truth
Published in 2013 Mid-South Super Lawyers magazine
on November 8, 2013
Updated on November 12, 2013
The clients who contact criminal defense attorney John Colette are not always what could be called safe bets. Often they are penniless or have had their assets frozen. They might stand accused of statutory rape, murder or bank fraud. Colette has represented drug dealers with Colombian cartel connections who were arrested while traveling along Mississippi’s so-called “Cocaine Corridors.” He was local counsel involved in the case of a 21-year-old man who, while vacationing with his parents in Florida, accidentally killed his father during a restaurant brawl.
Colette is a seasoned veteran of the courtroom, the one who will “raise Cain,” as he says. He talks about the process of taking on clients: “I don’t judge them,” he says. “I don’t make a decision whether they are guilty or not guilty; that’s up to a jury. I just see if I can legitimately and ethically represent them.” He must read their character—whether they are lying to him or to themselves about the trouble they are in.
“If I had to believe that all my clients were innocent,” Colette says, “I wouldn’t have any clients. … These people are entitled to an attorney, and they’re entitled to somebody that will fight for them—right, wrong or indifferent.”
At 60, Colette acknowledges that criminal defense law can be a grind. In the seven-person Jackson, Miss., firm John M. Colette & Associates, he doesn’t take many holidays. But he is passionate about the practice. His answers about defending cocaine dealers are unapologetic. The firm’s website contains many exclamation marks in its descriptions of legal victories.
He talks about the Fourth Amendment frequently because, living where he does, “illegal search and seizure” is part of the highway landscape, and the backbone of many of his defense cases. “People are pulled over for no reason. For going over the fog line,” Colette says. “And then their cars are searched.”
“If you want to get from Florida to Texas or from Texas to Florida, you’ve got to go through Mississippi. You can either go on I-20 or I-10, and that’s where they have a lot of their interdiction stops,” says Colette.
There is a heightened awareness among traffic cops patrolling these roadways that kilos could be passing by. And so, according to Colette, in the excitement of the possibility of a major coke bust, police reports are sometimes false, exaggerated, reimagined. Colette sees his role as bringing a case out of the realm of imagination, back into the real world. Back into the realm of the Constitution.
In the federal case of U.S. v. Salazar, the police camera told the story behind the smoke and mirrors. An officer pulled a woman over for a traffic violation and said she was acting agitated, which would justify searching her car. “During the course of the stop, he claimed she was acting real nervous and suspicious,” Colette says. “We had a Hispanic female in Mississippi, arguably acting nervous and suspicious, yet the videotape from the officer’s patrol car showed that she was calm.” The officer searched her car anyway and hit the jackpot: five kilos of cocaine. But the legality was nonexistent.
“It was unreal,” Colette says. The case was thrown out.
Colette thinks many lawyers lose juries when they “speak in a lot of Latin lingo,” instead of just telling the story. Colette tries to make jurors see their way back into the night in question; see how the adrenaline rush of the Cocaine Corridor might possibly be enough to make a cop veer off course and forget about the Fourth Amendment.
Colette’s landmark case, alongside fellow Jackson lawyer Dennis Sweet, ended in the release of their client Elicia Hughes. In her first trial, Hughes was convicted of shooting her husband six times while in their living room. The scenario presented by prosecutors in the first trial had Hughes coming into the room to confront the husband.
The case made national media, appearing on the popular cable show Snapped—a show targeted at female viewers, telling the stories of women who kill their lovers out of rage. But Colette is certain—and the second jury agreed—that Hughes did not snap. Instead, he says, she awoke innocently to gunshots and a terrible scene and became the victim of clumsy work by police, who focused on a small amount of gunpowder on the back of her hand—Colette notes she had placed her hand on her dead husband’s shoulder to check on him—and of a jury that was not as racially balanced as it could have been. The judge tossed the conviction, saying the prosecution had engaged in discriminatory jury selection. In the second trial, Colette brought in a surprise witness, a neighbor, who heard a car peeling away from the scene of the crime.
Winning that case, says Colette, was “the highest of the highs.”