Jury selection begins in trial of Ohio DEA agent

CLEVELAND — Jury selection began Wednesday in the trial of a federal drug agent charged with framing 17 people in a case that could influence the way confidential informants are handled.

Prospective jurors crowded the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. for the opening of the government’s case against Lee Lucas, 41. Lucas, a 19-year U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration veteran, sat between his two defense attorneys and took notes, watching prospective jurors as they responded to the judge’s questions.

The trial is expected to last several weeks.

Lucas, whose work included a stint in Bolivia fighting drug traffickers, faces 18 charges including obstruction of justice, making a false statement, perjury and violating civil rights. If convicted, he could face more than five years in prison.

Lucas, who was turned aside interview requests, has pleaded not guilty. He is on administrative leave.

The indictment against him says he made up evidence against suspects fingered by his informant, covered up evidence that might have cleared them and lied about surveillance.

Lucas claims the investigation was handled by local authorities and the DEA played a secondary, backup role. He contends in a court filing that any mistakes in his trial testimony or DEA reports were innocent and not intended to frame anyone.

The legal fallout from the case has cascaded through the courts, with the government dropping charges that came from tips provided by Lucas’s informant. Before that, one person had been convicted and served about 16 months of a 10-year sentence.

Last year, three convicted drug dealers whose cases were handled by Lucas asked for new trials. The U.S. Department of Justice ordered an internal investigation, and the sensitive case was taken out of the hands of federal prosecutors in northern Ohio who had worked with Lucas and was turned over to a prosecutor in Pittsburgh.

The Lucas case could have professional ramifications. Any time a law enforcement officer goes on trial on corruption charges, it can affect officers and their credibility, according to Macon County, N.C., Sheriff’s Lt. Brian Leopard, who has worked with DEA agents on investigations.

Leopard, who was unfamiliar with the Lucas case, said corruption in the drug enforcement ranks can prompt more demanding oversight and hinder investigations.

“It helps the criminal out and hurts us,” he said Tuesday in a telephone interview.

Lucas’s informant, Jerrell Bray, a small-time drug dealer whose record includes a manslaughter conviction, is expected to testify against his former handler. Bray, 37, was enlisted in 2005 as an informant for a drug sting in Mansfield, a blue-collar city of about 50,000 residents in north-central Ohio.

Bray has admitted lying to polish his informant credentials and keep suspects flowing through the court system. He is serving 15 years for perjury and civil rights violations against those targeted in his role as an informant.

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