Back in April, we wrote about Mark and Rhonda Lesher, a couple in rural Texas who won a massive defamation verdict against formerly anonymous online commenters. The online comments followed a trial during which they were acquitted of sexual assault. The multimillion dollar verdict appeared to set things right.
But it turns out there is much, much more to their story. Theirs is an unsettling tale of small-town justice, politics, and Mark Lesher, a lawyer-slash-“professional agitator,” who tried to do the right thing in a town that apparently wanted none of it.
Let’s start with news that the defamation verdict was overturned last month, and go backwards from there….
He’d spent a decade fighting the Red River County justice system, until they came for him too. When his wife was being arrested that Monday afternoon in 2008, Mark Lesher was an hour away, at his other office in Texarkana. After he got his assistant’s call, Mark got into his silver Chevrolet truck and headed west to bail Rhonda out, like he’d done for countless clients before. He didn’t get far. Another sheriff’s deputy was waiting for Mark on Highway 82 inside the Red River County line. He cuffed Mark’s hands behind his back — so tightly his wrists bled when the cuffs came off — and stowed him in his cruiser. The deputies searched his truck while rubberneckers on the highway slowed down for a better look. Stuck in the back seat with the air conditioning off, Mark began to sweat.
Doesn’t this sound like the screenplay to the beginning of the next three-hour, Oscar-winning Daniel Day Lewis epic?
Mark was a defense attorney, but, more accurately, he was a professional agitator. As a trial lawyer, Lesher prided himself on “defending the little guy.” He looked for every chance to challenge the county establishment, gambling on lawsuits against the government and the hospital, where he could score a cut of a big award. Raised in the Panhandle, Lesher had come to East Texas in the early 1970s to work in the Texarkana district attorney’s office. Lesher says the D.A. at the time, Lynn Cooksey, was wasting money on a personal vendetta against the sheriff and neglecting good cases. Lesher left for private practice and led a successful movement to vote Cooksey out of office. In 1996, Lesher moved to a ranch in Red River County, bought some cattle, opened a second office just off the Clarksville town square, and soon met and married Rhonda. He had landed in another bubble of local power run wild. Emboldened by success in Texarkana, he started speaking out. “I thought I could turn Red River County around,” he says, “just like I did in Bowie County.” He also made enemies. “Because I will sue people, because I will represent the poor people, I get identified as the guy that’s got the black hat.”
Red River County is not exactly the kind of place that wanted a do-gooder like Lesher. Especially because it probably needs one so badly. According to the Observer, countywide poverty and a checkered history — particularly in regards to race relations — make Red River a tough place for some people to receive justice.
Add the obvious fact that Lesher faced the local district attorney in court on the reg, and it’s easy to see why he wasn’t particularly popular in town. The Texas Observer article, which is well worth a serious perusal, goes into great detail about the region’s touchy local politics. Here is just a taste of what the region is dealing with:
Alan Bean, who runs the civil rights group Friends of Justice, says Red River County is one of many counties in Texas that don’t have the economic base to function the way county governments are supposed to. When someone with big aspirations takes office in a place like that, Bean says, “It can be kind of a toxic mix. They’re not necessarily very evil people, but the circumstances do not bring out the best of their character.”
In any case, the Leshers were accused of some pretty horrendous sexual crimes by Shannon Coyel, who they had represented in divorce proceedings against her husband, a man named Jerry Coyel. Coyel owns Apache Auto Works near Fort Worth, one of the biggest salvage yards in the state, according to the Observer.
In short, it sounds like he is a very powerful man. According to court records, when she was trying to get divorced, Shannon accused Jerry of abusing her children (who were his stepchildren), and of doing things like telling her 13-year-old daughter to “massage her breasts each day to make them grow,” and watching her have sex with her boyfriend. ::shivers::
Not really surprising that Shannon wanted to leave, right? In fact, she did — literally — and “had run off with Red McCarver, her husband’s ranch hand.” (JFC, Hollywood, BUY THE RIGHTS for this film, like, now.) So during the time they represented her, the Leshers let Shannon stay with them at their ranch.
But no good deed goes unpunished. Over Labor Day weekend in 2007, Shannon came home to Jerry.
The following spring, disgusting rumors began to pop up on Topix.com, which, the Observer explains, was “the place for anonymous small-town rumormongering.” Not long after, Shannon told her tall tale in court:
Shannon Coyel told a grand jury all about the nightmare she says she endured at the Leshers’ place eight months earlier. Red McCarver had introduced her to meth and marijuana, she told them, but Mark Lesher was the real kingpin, selling pot to bigshots like country singer Ray Price, and even manufacturing big white “Dr. Feel Good pills.” They were more addictive than meth, Shannon said, and totally undetectable by the drug tests she’d taken that summer.
On the night of July 26 Shannon had a migraine, she told the grand jury, and when she complained, Mark gave her a new kind of pill. It made her a little woozy.
She claimed she woke up naked in her bed a few hours later, with Rhonda Lesher performing oral sex on her as Mark and Red stood naked in the corner, masturbating. She tried to scream and kick, but couldn’t, she told the grand jury. She was immobilized by the drug. She said Rhonda got up and Mark came over and raped her, then let Red rape her, too.
That is foul. When the case made it to trial, Shannon was eviscerated during cross-examination. Even prosecutor Val Varley — the same man who Mark routinely faced in court, and who is not shy about his distaste for the Leshers — said, “That was one of the best cross-examinations, I’ll just say, I’ve ever seen to de-gut a witness.” (From the article, it’s unclear if Mark represented himself, his wife, and McCarver pro se, although it seems doubtful.)
Finally, the Leshers and McCarver were acquitted (the jury only deliberated for 20 minutes before bringing back a not guilty verdict), but y’all know that’s not the end of the story….