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John Jacob Coulson stood before the judge and admitted his crime.

Yes, he told St. Louis County Circuit Judge David Lee Vincent III, he stole a debit card at a truck stop. Yes, he used it to get cash.

It was Nov. 1 and Coulson appeared before Vincent wearing the tan jumpsuit of a person incarcerated by the state Department of Corrections. His hands were cuffed in front of him and his legs were shackled.

Coulson's attorney, Chris Lozano, and the assistant prosecuting attorney, Christian Roberts, had already arrived at a plea agreement. Restitution plus time served.

Vincent checked the file.

“Your client has his time in from a Warren County case,” the judge said to Lozano.

It's a bit of judicial serendipity.

If not for a case of injustice two counties to the west, Coulson might have been headed to jail in this case. He's guilty here. But that one?

“I wasn't good for it,” he said.

That Coulson did nearly a year in prison for a crime he didn't commit helps explain a dubious distinction in Missouri. The state has more people in prison for parole or probation violations than any other state in the nation except for one. All told, 54% of the people behind bars in Missouri prisons are there serving probation or parole violations rather than initial sentences, according to the Council of State Governments. 

Coulson is one of them. He is scheduled to be released from the Boonville Correctional Center in December. The 38-year-old grew up in Silex. He's been in and out of prison since he was 19. He has a drug addiction.

His most recent run-in with the law started Jan. 7. He was asleep in a mobile home in Warren County west of Highway 61 when police raided the place. They found a bag and asked if it was his. Yes, Coulson told them. In the bag was a needle with meth residue. That wasn't his, he told police.

They arrested him anyway and charged him with felony drug possession. Because he was a prior and persistent offender, he faced 7 to 15 years in prison. Lozano ended up defending Coulson as a contract public defender. It's something the former Marine does as a means of public service. When he's not in court, Lozano is president of a window shade company. In Coulson, Lozano saw a victim of a system that criminalizes drug addiction and poverty — and that was before he saw how bad the evidence was.

After Coulson was charged by Warren County Prosecuting Attorney Kelly King — before lab tests and before most of the evidence was even available — Coulson ended up back in state prison. Being charged with a crime was a violation of his parole.

But the reason for that parole violation — the Warren County arrest — was a bad one, Lozano would discover. He found out how bad just two weeks before trial. That's when he got police body camera evidence that exonerated Coulson. Another person in the trailer admitted owning the needle to police. The video camera evidence contradicts the probable cause statement that was used to charge Coulson, Lozano says.

And as Lozano would note in a motion filed in Coulson's case, it wasn't the first time King had been accused of sitting on evidence. Earlier this year, the Missouri Supreme Court chided her for doing that in another drug case, one involving a woman named Danielle Zuroweste. 

“Sitting idly on Zuroweste’s discovery request for six months and then waiting until mere days before trial to locate and disclose … recorded statements made by Zuroweste is the antithesis of the diligence and good faith requirement of (the discovery rules),” the court wrote of the Warren County prosecutor's actions. 

In Coulson's case, Lozano argued that the evidence turned over late by King makes the case against his client unprovable.

“It's an extraordinarily clear case of prosecutorial misconduct,” Lozano said.

Judge Linda Hamlett dismissed his arguments.

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Then something surprising happened.

King dropped the case.

“I thought it was the right decision to make,” she said in an interview. King said she turned over all the evidence in the case as soon as she saw it. And she denied blame for Coulson's being in jail.

“He did not sit in jail because of my case,” she said.

Technically, that's true. But he wouldn't be in prison today if she hadn't charged him with a crime in a case she couldn't prove.

And that, Lozano says, is a shame.

“What they are doing is putting people like John on this hamster wheel that they can't get off,” he says. “Warehousing drug addicts is not an answer.”

One way or another, Coulson will leave prison a free man next month. He has no other pending charges. At his recent St. Louis County court appearance, Judge Vincent asked him if he had support.

“I do,” Coulson told the judge. He plans to get work as a roofer.

“You take care of yourself,” Vincent said. “Good luck to you.”

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