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Tulia Texas 'Drug Bust' Scandal (2)

This story was first broken in the New York Times in 2002 by reporter Bob Herbert. It is quite possible this story would not have been broken internationally if one journalist had not invested the time and effort to investigate. Injustices which are not investigated become invisible -- and we know there are many! The province of Saskatchewan alone could provide many journalists with employment!


10 from Tulia could be denied cash for jail time
Some stuck in legal limbo; Abbott's opinion sought.

Tulia Texas

On Monday, Kareem White, one of 35 Tulia drug defendants pardoned by Texas Gov. Rick Perry three years ago, got the first half of $100,000 from the state for being wrongly imprisoned.

In all, 20 residents of the tiny Panhandle town that was rocked by a drug sting gone wrong have filed claims of more than $1.3 million against the state. However, 10 of them are in a legal limbo that could delay - or prevent - them from collecting for the prison time they served.

Almost 50 people, most of them black and poor, were arrested in the town of 5,000 people during an early morning raid in the summer of 1999. They were arrested on felony drug charges on the word of one undercover officer whose testimony could not be substantiated later.

Charges against some were dropped, but 35 were convicted or pleaded guilty in the face of vigorous prosecutions. They were later pardoned by Perry.

At issue now are 10 former defendants who were already on probation or parole for other crimes when they were wrongly accused in 1999 of selling cocaine and who were accused of violating their parole or probation because of the drug arrests.

State law allows people who are wrongly convicted and serve jail time to receive compensation from the state - $25,000 per year. But it prohibits paying a person for being wrongly imprisoned on one crime if he or she is serving a sentence concurrently on another charge - in this case, the probation or parole violations.

Brent Hamilton, who is representing 19 of the Tulia clients, said it is unfair to penalize people who might never have violated their parole or probation and gone to jail if not for the trumped-up drug charges.

"These people were on probation or parole and were doing fine when they were (wrongly) arrested," Hamilton said.

Earlier this month, Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, whose job includes paying claims against the state, asked Attorney General Greg Abbott how to handle those 10 claims, which account for almost half of the $1.3 million.

"Although I am fully satisfied that a great injustice occurred in Tulia and that equity clearly justifies full payment, there is a statutory issue that I am compelled to present to you for your opinion," Strayhorn wrote Abbott.

Strayhorn framed the issue around the case of Jason Paul Fry, who was serving a probated term for a drug-possession conviction when he was arrested in the Tulia raid.

"Technically, this statutory language appears to disqualify Mr. Fry from entitlement to any compensation," Strayhorn wrote. "However, the inequity is that it was his wrongful arrest and conviction for the Tulia drug charge that caused his probation . . . to be revoked."

The Tulia defendants who were convicted of selling small amounts of cocaine received sentences of up to 90 years, and many served up to four years before they were pardoned.

For any of the 20 claims to be paid, District Attorney Wally Hatch was required by state law to write letters to the comptroller explaining that the defendants were legally entitled to the money.

Hatch, who became the prosecutor for Tulia six years after the raid, said the controversy - and the national spotlight that it brought - still burns some residents.

"I think the general consensus is: There may have been some mistakes made, but there were some crimes committed as well," Hatch said.

In his letters, Hatch avoided saying anyone was innocent and just noted that the people filing the claims had been pardoned by Perry.

The undercover officer who was responsible for the bogus drug charges worked alone and used no audio or video surveillance. No drugs were found.

Some groups charged that the raid was racially motivated.

Hamilton, whose law firms have represented some of the Tulia defendants since the initial drug raid, said he understands Hatch's reluctance.

Hamilton said that parts of Tulia might have had a drug problem but that "things were exaggerated" in the investigation.

"It's sort of like driving 80 miles per hour in a 70 miles-per-hour zone, and the trooper wrote you a ticket for 100 miles per hour," Hamilton said. "Unfortunately it resulted in problems for the defendants, for the taxpayers, and for the district attorney. It's been tough on everyone out here."


Saskatchewan or Texas: Where will justice come first?

Who will be exonorated first? The 46 falsely accused in Tulia Texas or the 25 falsely accused in Saskatoon and Martensville? Tom Coleman is no longer in law enforcement but Dueck is Superintendant. A Texas judge has ruled frame-up by Coleman was a disgrace to the Texas justice system. What will a Saskatchewan trial judge determine about Dueck's case when it comes to trial September 8?


Partway to Freedom

AMARILLO, TX - At least 12 of the people who were sent to prison on the word of a lying, reckless, bigoted lawman in Tulia Texas, will step into the sweet light and fresh air of freedom this afternoon. But they have not yet been exonerated.

District Judge Ron Chapman, who has thoroughly investigated the case and recommended that all convictions be thrown out, will authorize the release of the prisoners at a special bail hearing in Tulia today. Because of jurisdictional reasons, three others who are still in prison will not be part of today's proceedings. A decision on whether to release one other prisoner today had not been reached by last night.

Every branch of the Texas state government has now acknowledged, in one form or another, that the Tulia defendants were railroaded. Two weeks ago, in an extraordinary ceremony for a state that likes to view itself as beyond tough on crime, Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill that permitted Judge Chapman to grant bail to those who were still behind bars.

Tom Coleman

The 16 people still imprisoned were among 46 Tulia residents arrested on felony drug charges four years ago after an absurd "deep undercover" investigation by a clownish officer named Tom Coleman. The men and women targeted by Mr. Coleman were characterized as major drug traffickers. But no drugs, guns or money were recovered when they were rounded up, publicly humiliated and paraded before the news media, which had been alerted in advance.

The subsequent trials were outrageous pro forma proceedings in which convictions were a foregone conclusion. After the first few trials resulted in grotesque sentences - in some cases, 90 years or more - the remaining defendants began lining up to plead guilty in return for lesser punishment. A total of 38 defendants either were convicted or pleaded guilty.

Mr. Coleman's activities in Tulia have since been completely discredited, and he's been indicted for perjury. Prosecutors threw in the towel in April. They said they had made a terrible mistake in relying on Mr. Coleman's uncorroborated testimony, and they agreed that all convictions, including those of individuals who had pleaded guilty, should be overturned.

But justice is always elusive in Texas, so that was not the end of the story. Judge Chapman's formal recommendation that the convictions be overturned has to be approved by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which has not yet acted. And no one knows when it will act or what it will do. Meanwhile, the convictions stand.

The prospect of the Tulia defendants sitting in prison for months while awaiting a decision from the Court of Criminal Appeals led the State Legislature to pass the bill that made the granting of bail possible.

State Senator John Whitmire, chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, said, "It is clear to me that the only reasonable alternative at this point is to release these individuals."

An unfavorable ruling by the Court of Criminal Appeals could result in the defendants' being sent back to prison. But there is another potential route to exoneration. Governor Perry has asked the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to review the Tulia convictions to determine if some form of clemency is in order. In a letter to the board's chairman, Gerald Garrett, Governor Perry wrote:

"I urge you to begin an expeditious investigation into each of these cases and recommend whether a pardon, commutation of sentence or other clemency action is appropriate and just."

He added: "A recent review by the trial court concluded that the key witness, an undercover agent, was not credible."

Among the prisoners to be released today is Joe Moore, a pig farmer, now in his 60's, who was sentenced to 90 years. I remember standing outside his vacant and absolute ruin of a house, his shack, and thinking, "This has to be the most poverty-stricken drug kingpin ever."

Mr. Moore nearly died from illness while in prison.

Elaine Jones, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represents several of the people still in prison, told me yesterday: "I can't get into a celebratory mood yet. This is progress, but the convictions have not been overturned and our clients will still be under the jurisdiction of the state, even after they're released. I don't want anybody to lose sight of that."


12 Freed in Appeal of Texas Drug Busts

Billy Don Wafer

TULIA, Texas - A dozen blacks jailed in a series of small-town drug busts that were based on the now-discredited testimony of a single undercover agent were freed on bail Monday pending appeals.

A special prosecutor has said he will dismiss the cases if an appeals court orders new trials.

Civil rights advocates decried the arrests and a judge had recommended that the convictions be overturned. A bill signed by Gov. Rick Perry two weeks ago cleared the way for their release.

"There are a great number of people who have a great deal of time, effort and faith in each of you invested," said Judge Ron Chapman, a retired state district judge appointed to preside in the case, as he ordered the 12 released. "Your friends and loved ones are counting on you."

"We have good people here in Tulia," Freddie Brookins Jr. said as he walked free after serving four years of a 20-year sentence. "There's no doubt about it, we have great people here in Tulia."

"I got something to smile about today," Brookins' father said. "It's been a lot of hard work that's gone into this."

A 13th defendant, Daniel Olivarez, 22, will remain in custody because there is a hold on him from Potter County, which is outside Chapman's jurisdiction. A 14th defendant included in the bill, Cash Love, was ineligible for bail because his case is pending on direct appeal.

Love's wife, Kizzie White, 26, was among those freed. "I just wanted to get a hold of my kids," she said of 6-year-old Cash and 9-year-old Roneisha.

Forty-six people, 39 of whom are black, were arrested and accused of possessing cocaine following an 18-month undercover operation in the Texas Panhandle town by Tom Coleman, now under indictment on perjury charges.

Coleman, who is white, claimed he bought drugs from the defendants during an 18-month investigation in which he worked alone and used no audio or video surveillance. No drugs or money were found during the arrests.

One defendant had an alibi but the other 38 were convicted on Coleman's uncorroborated word or accepted plea agreements out of fear of lengthy prison terms.

The remainder of the 38 had already been paroled or released on probation.

The bust drew national attention and led to investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice (news - web sites) and the Texas Attorney General's office.

The 12 were released Monday from Swisher County Jail on personal recognizance bonds - not having to post any money - pending a ruling on appeals by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The appeals court had ordered evidentiary hearings for four of the defendants.

In late April, Coleman was indicted on three charges of aggravated perjury stemming from his testimony during the hearings, which Chapman oversaw.

Chapman said Coleman was not a credible witness and recommended the appeals court overturn the convictions of all 38 defendants.

He found fault with the district attorney and Coleman's supervisors in the Swisher County Sheriff's Department and the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force.

His report called Coleman, who is no longer in law enforcement, "the most devious, nonresponsive witness this court has witnessed in 25 years on the bench in Texas."

Coleman's "blatant perjury" during the Tulia prosecutions "so undermines the court's confidence in the validity of the convictions entered in those cases that it would be a travesty of justice to permit the applicants' convictions to stand," a filing to the appeals court signed by Chapman states.

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles is another avenue that could clear the records of the 38. In May, Perry asked the board to review their cases.

Mattie White's 27-year-old son and 26-year-old daughter were among the 12. She said before the hearing that she had all but given up hope that she would ever again be reunited with them.

"I thought, 'It's not going to ever happen.' I would go off and cry to myself," White said.


The Tulia Story Isn't Over

A grand jury in Texas has indicted the ex-cop who conducted a slimy undercover operation that devastated much of the black community in the small Panhandle town of Tulia.

But we should hold off on the champagne toasts. The perjury indictment against Thomas Coleman, a self-styled "deep undercover" narcotics agent who concocted one of the worst criminal justice atrocities of recent years, is not really that big a deal.

Thirteen of the people improperly targeted by Mr. Coleman's racist, lunatic investigation are still locked in the hellish environment of Texas state prison. And the lies that Mr. Coleman is accused of telling under oath were not directly related to his investigation in Tulia, which has now been officially discredited.

It would be outrageous if Mr. Coleman was nailed for perjury but the higher-ups who enthusiastically encouraged his activities - and prosecuted and imprisoned his victims - were allowed to escape all responsibility for their actions.

Mr. Coleman's undercover operation and his uncorroborated, unsubstantiated testimony led to the imprisonment of more than three dozen individuals, nearly all of them black. When the defendants were rounded up in a humiliating series of arrests on July 23, 1999, the police found no guns, no drugs and no money.

The defendants were characterized as major drug dealers and vilified in Tulia's small-town, racially charged environment. Some of the sentences were extraordinarily, cruelly long - 90 years and more.

It has since been shown that Mr. Coleman was a bizarre individual who fingered people who were obviously innocent, scrawled important investigative information on various parts of his body, had been in trouble with the law himself, had once blown out the windshield of a patrol car with a shotgun, had routinely referred to blacks as "niggers", and had a widespread professional reputation as unreliable and untrustworthy.

In short, Tom Coleman was a clown, although a dangerous one. His activities should be thoroughly investigated by competent authorities, and his superiors should be investigated as well.

In Texas the Tulia fiasco was characterized as a criminal justice triumph. Mr. Coleman was hailed as a hero and presented with the state's "Lawman of the Year" award by John Cornyn, who was then the state attorney general and has since been elected a United States senator from Texas.

"Tulia is not just the story of a rogue cop," said Vanita Gupta, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is handling the appeals of several Tulia defendants.

Among the larger issues here are why this happened at all, who allowed it to happen and why the law enforcement establishment refused to intervene even after it was clear that a great injustice was occurring.

Tom Coleman's activities were financed by the federal government. He was hired and was supposed to have been supervised by the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force, one of the many federally financed task forces that are supposed to be waging an all-out war against the scourge of drugs in the U.S.

The task forces in Texas are great examples of a drug war gone haywire. They squander millions of dollars on amateurish investigations that snare mostly low-level offenders, and they tend to focus like lasers on people who are black or Hispanic.

The way the money is distributed by the Department of Justice encourages the task forces to rack up as many arrests as possible, whether they are quality arrests or not. The more people they arrest, the more money the task forces get.

In Tulia, Tom Coleman's capers were so freakish they became impossible to defend. Last month the authorities threw in the towel. Prosecutors conceded that they had made an awful mistake in relying on Mr. Coleman's uncorroborated testimony and moved in court to overturn every conviction, including those in which defendants pleaded guilty. (Some defendants, after seeing the excessively harsh sentences being handed down, rushed to plead guilty in exchange for more lenient punishment.)

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has the final say on whether the convictions will be vacated. The decent thing to do at this point would be to ease the suffering of the 13 individuals still incarcerated by releasing them on bail pending the final ruling of the appeals court.

That would be the decent and honorable thing to do. But this is Texas we're talking about.


Judge says throw out Tulia drug convictions

TULIA TX - A judge recommended today that a higher court overturn 38 drug convictions that defense attorneys claimed were racially motivated.

The 1999 arrests stemmed from the work of a single undercover agent whom other law-enforcement officials said had faced theft charges and used a racial epithet.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had ordered a hearing to review evidence against four of the defendants. The star witness during the hearing, which began last month and was scheduled to resume today, was undercover agent Thomas Coleman.

"It is stipulated by all parties and approved by the court that Tom Coleman is simply not a credible witness under oath," said retired state district Judge Ron Chapman of Dallas, who presided over the hearing.

Chapman recommended that the appeals court grant new trials to everyone convicted as a result of the busts.

In all, 46 people were arrested, 39 of them black. Thirteen are still in prison. Others served time or were sentenced to probation.

An attorney with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said it was "hugely significant" that prosecutors acknowledged flaws in their cases.

"This is wonderful news, though nothing is final as of yet," said Vanita Gupta. "But we are very pleased that Tom Coleman's word can't be the basis of any standing conviction."

Jeff Blackburn, an Amarillo attorney representing two of the four men whose arrests were examined in the hearing, predicted Chapman's recommendation would carry much weight with the appellate court.

Coleman, who was due to resume his testimony that was halted when the hearing adjourned March 21, was not in the courthouse.

The arrests on charges of possessing and selling crack and powdered cocaine hinged on uncorroborated testimony by Coleman, the lone undercover drug agent in the 18-month operation. Coleman used no audio or video surveillance, often writing notes about his alleged buys on his legs.

Police found no drugs on any of the suspects arrested during the largest sweep.

Complaints by civil rights groups helped focus international attention on the Panhandle town of 5,000 midway between Lubbock and Amarillo. The arrests hit a large portion of the town's black population, which numbers only in the hundreds.

The Justice Department and the Texas attorney general's office are investigating the cases.


The Latest From Tulia

Some tentative, very preliminary steps are being taken to address one of the great miscarriages of justice in the country - the roundup and prosecution of dozens of black men and women on specious drug trafficking charges in the Texas Panhandle town of Tulia.

There is no reason to believe that any of the people arrested in the humiliating roundup on July 23, 1999, were guilty of trafficking. No drugs, money or weapons were found. Several defendants have already been proved innocent. All were arrested solely on the word of a clownish undercover cop named Tom Coleman who had a penchant for making up charges, throwing his "evidence" into the garbage, scrawling important investigative information on his arms and legs, changing his testimony from trial to trial, making false statements while under oath, referring to black people as "niggers," and stumbling into legal trouble himself.

On the uncorroborated, unsubstantiated testimony of this officer, defendants arrested in Tulia on that shameful summer day were convicted and given prison sentences of 20 years, 60 years, 90 years and more. When the first astonishingly harsh sentences were handed down, the remaining defendants quickly began agreeing to plead guilty in return for more lenient punishment. Thirteen defendants remain in prison, serving sentences of up to 99 years.

In the bleak and twisted world of criminal justice in Texas, this case was considered cause for celebration. Mr. Coleman was hailed as a hero and given the state's "Lawman of the Year" award.

Local officials had every reason to believe that no one would pay attention to the terrible doings in Tulia. But the media spotlight has remained on the fiasco and the case has become a Texas-sized embarrassment. The offices of the U.S. attorney general, John Ashcroft, and the Texas attorney general, John Cornyn, have said they are investigating. But the investigations have been extremely quiet and so far no developments have been reported.

There has been a significant development in the courts, however. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, responding to petitions filed by a local attorney, Jeff Blackburn, and lawyers from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, has sent a number of the cases back to the trial court for additional fact-finding.

Among other things, the appeals court wants to know if there was evidence available to impeach Mr. Coleman's testimony, and if there had been any knowledge by the prosecution of such evidence.

Ordinarily the original trial judge would handle the response to the request by the appeals court. But District Judge Ed Self, who presided over most of the Tulia trials, recused himself after defense lawyers called his impartiality into question. The judge, who had leaned heavily in favor of the prosecution during the trials, defended his rulings in a letter to the editor of a local newspaper last month. He was also quoted as saying that local residents were "tired of all the talk about the drug bust."

A new judge from an entirely different judicial district - Judge Ron Chapman of Dallas - has been assigned to the case. This is a very hopeful sign. The criminal justice crowd in and around Tulia worked as a team to perpetrate this outrage. And these good ol' officials have shown no inclination to blow the whistle on their own bad behavior. A pair of fresh and impartial eyes is in order.

Meanwhile, the district attorney who prosecuted most of the Tulia cases, Terry McEachern, has a problem of his own to deal with. He was arrested in New Mexico the day before Thanksgiving on a misdemeanor charge of driving while intoxicated. Police said he was pulled over after his Jeep Cherokee was spotted weaving from lane to lane. He reportedly said he had consumed some alcohol and also the prescription drug Valium. But he said he was not drunk. He refused to take a blood alcohol test.

John Cornyn, the state attorney general whose office is supposed to be investigating the Tulia arrests, had a much better November. Mr. Cornyn, who actually presented Tom Coleman with his Texas "Lawman of the Year" award, was elected to the United States Senate. He will take his seat as part of the Republican majority in January.