Gyronne Buckley is a free man.
His criminal record reflects that fact. It shows that he has never been tried or convicted of any offense, save a misdemeanor for "inciting a riot" after, he said, he was jumped amidst racial tensions at his high school in 1972. At 60, he lives a quiet life. He mows the grass and takes care of his grandkids while his daughter catches extra shifts. He is free. But he has been rendered un-innocent.
In January 1999, Buckley was arrested for allegedly selling less than a paperclip's weight of crack cocaine to an undercover informant with a checkered past. Within six months, Buckley was sent to prison for two life sentences on the word of Drug Task Force Agent Keith Ray, a cop who resigned after later admitting he'd lied in a similar case. A videotape would later surface of Ray coaching an informant into the right answers the month before Buckley's trial.
In November 2010, after a decade of courtroom wrangling, a special prosecutor dropped charges against Buckley, and he was freed after 11 years and 6 months in prison. With his record expunged, Buckley's attorneys presented a case for wrongful conviction to the Arkansas State Claims Commission in December 2013. The commission unanimously voted to award him $460,000 — only the second time the commission had awarded money to a wrongfully convicted inmate. The other case also involved task force agent Ray, a man who Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel would later call a disgrace to the state.
If the top law enforcement officer of the state believes that, why did a legislative subcommittee ultimately reverse and dismiss Buckley's claim, after McDaniel's impassioned argument that they do so? Buckley attorneys will tell you that the answer to that question likely has a lot more to do with money than with justice.
Corey Livsey was a small-time guy with a problem.
A Chicago native who had followed his girlfriend to sleepy Arkadelphia, he'd been in town less than three months when he was caught shoplifting at the local Walmart on Jan. 12, 1999. Having been to the penitentiary in Illinois three times for petty crimes, he ran as the police closed in. When they caught him, the charge was bumped up to robbery because he'd fled. He didn't want to do time in Arkansas. So he told the officers he could help them bust a drug dealer.
Later that day, he met with Arkadelphia police officer Roy Bethell, Linda Card and Keith Ray. Ray and Card were agents with the South Central Drug Task Force, which operated in seven Southwest Arkansas counties, converting federal dollars into drug arrests and convictions. The war on drugs was in full flower in 1999, and a record of sending drug pushers away for long sentences looked a lot like job security for cops and prosecutors all over the state.
By the afternoon of Jan. 12, Livsey had cut a deal, telling the agents that he had bought crack cocaine on at least 10 occasions from Gyronne Buckley, who he met through Buckley's cousin. The cops would wire up Livsey with a hidden microphone, give him money with recorded serial numbers, and send him to Buckley's house on Peake Street to purchase crack as they watched from a distance. In addition to having the charges against him dropped, Livsey later testified, he was paid $100.
Attempts by the Arkansas Times to locate Ray and Livsey were unsuccessful. Former task force agent Card, who now works as an enforcement agent for Arkansas Tobacco Control, replied to an initial inquiry with an email that said, in part, "Mr. Buckley was not an innocent man. He was a dope dealer who finally got caught." She later wrote that because she could not locate a copy of the transcript of Buckley's trial and other documents, she would not be able to answer further questions about Ray and her involvement in the case.
In January 1999, Gyronne Buckley was living in Houston, working construction and driving back to see his mother in Arkadelphia every few months. In a recent interview the Times, he said he sold clothes out of his house in Arkadelphia whenever he came home — knock-off purses and flashy clubwear. He still has a tote full of old records from his business — catalogs, receipts and spiral notebooks full of entries in his handwriting. He said that with the traffic in and out of his house, some might have thought he was dealing drugs.
That afternoon, Livsey was wired by the police and searched to make sure he didn't have any other money or drugs on him. Ray dropped Livsey off a few blocks from Buckley's house, while Card and Bethell stationed themselves in an unmarked car at the corner of Hunter and North Peake. Card testified that she monitored audio while Bethell watched through binoculars.
Using a range finder, Buckley's lawyers — including Little Rock attorney Patrick Benca and University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law Professor J.T. Sullivan — later determined that the corner of Hunter and North Peake is 240 yards from Buckley's house; almost two and half football fields. In addition, Buckley's house also has a privacy fence along the side that would have further blocked the officers' view from their position — a fence that was already in place in 1999.
When Arkansas Times went to Arkadelphia last month to view the scene from the corner of Hunter and North Peake, a mailbox beside the privacy fence next to Buckley's house registered to the naked eye as a tiny gray dot, unrecognizable at that distance. Neither the house nor Buckley, wearing a white tank top, standing in the street, could be seen through Arkansas Times photographer Brian Chilson's telephoto lens on his camera. While July isn't January, Sullivan said that a person standing on the porch still isn't visible even when the leaves are off in the winter.
At Buckley's eventual trial, both Bethell and Card testified that they watched from Hunter and North Peake as Livsey walked up to Buckley's house, walked onto the porch and knocked, and that a man they said they recognized as Buckley came to the door and lingered a bit on the porch before inviting Livsey briefly inside.
After confirming under questioning that she had no binoculars, Card testified, "On the 12th, I observed Buckley reach up into the rafters [of the front porch]. I watched Livsey walk up onto the porch and knock and there was some conversation. Buckley appeared at the door and reached up into the rafters and then both of them went back into the residence." In addition to the testimony at trial, Card's observations would be used to get the warrant to search Buckley's house.
The police surveillance audio of the interaction between Buckley and Livsey that day is full of pops and hisses. There's a nervous, staccato knock. A voice is heard and then Gyronne Buckley speaks, asking Livsey what's going on. Buckley then says what sounds like "don't pull your money out."
Going by the audio, Livsey was in the house less than a minute, but drugs are never mentioned. The rest of the conversation is about Livsey's women troubles, with Buckley telling him he better "put that other woman down," and asking Livsey to hook him up with a female friend. During that encounter, Livsey later testified, he used police money to purchase two $20 rocks of cocaine, which he later returned to officers. Walking away, Livsey can be heard to mumble, "I ain't never been so scared in my motherfuckin' life."
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