Joshua Boyer’s mother often had to remind him to think for himself. Growing up in rural Illinois, Boyer was quiet and well mannered, a shy white kid who spent his afternoons fishing for strawberry bass in farm ponds and the creeks that feed the Mississippi. But he was drawn to charismatic boys who broke the rules. They would sneak out at night to drink and smoke; they would drive through town in a pickup truck, knocking down neighbors’ mailboxes with a baseball bat. “Are you coming?” they would ask him, and Boyer had trouble saying no. He didn’t say no when a cousin proposed that they run away from home, or when a friend at a rave handed him a small dose of powder heroin. By 2001, when Boyer was twenty-four, he was living in Tampa, Florida, doing heroin six or seven times a day. He was miserable and barely employable. He did deliveries for an electronics-repair business, but the job depended on his car, which was threatening to give out. He wanted to go to rehab, but the program cost nearly two thousand dollars—far more than he could afford.
That winter, Boyer met a man who promised to change his life. He was a wiry Cuban American named Richie, who wore tight jeans and had long curly hair. Some guys Boyer partied with said that Richie had a plan to “hit the jackpot,” and one of them took Boyer to an empty warehouse to meet him. Richie told them that he worked as a courier for a Colombian drug cartel, driving shipments of cocaine to New York City. He said that he was being cheated by his bosses, and he was assembling a crew to help him rob their stash house, which was lightly guarded. During pickups, Richie had counted at least eighteen kilograms of cocaine, worth close to two million dollars. “With the amount we’re talking about, you ain’t going to have to work no more, you understand?” Richie’s partner, Mike, told Boyer. “This is a gold mine.”
In 2013, Mayfield’s case came to the attention of Alison Siegler, the founder and director of the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School. She had become alarmed by the increase in stash-house stings. “Entrapment was a non-starter,” Siegler told me. “I created a new legal strategy entirely.” Siegler and Judith Miller, an instructor at the clinic, thought they might be able to prove that the A.T.F.’s undercover operations in Chicago were disproportionately targeting Black and brown men, violating the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise of equal protection. “If we can show that the A.T.F. is choosing poor people of color again and again,” Siegler said, “then maybe we can show this is a real problem and we are dealing with race discrimination.”
Siegler and Miller hired Jeffrey Fagan, an expert in policing who had discovered racial disparities in the N.Y.P.D.’s stop-and-frisk program, to analyze data on stash-house targets in Chicago between 2006 and 2013. Fagan found that, of ninety-four defendants in twenty-four stings, seventy-four were Black and eight were white—a gap so wide that there was “a zero-per-cent likelihood” it was accidental, he said. By sending confidential informants into Black neighborhoods, the A.T.F. was guaranteeing high numbers of Black defendants. Undercover agents also implicitly encouraged Black stash-house targets to recruit other Black men to help them. “If they see some other Mexicans doin’ it,” a Hispanic agent said in one case, “they’re gonna know they’re with me.” When another Hispanic agent met a Black target, he said, “What I like about you is that nobody can put me and you together.” In the words of an informant: “Yo, this guy is Black—he’s perfect.”
Read more at The New Yorker