In a stunning reversal, Texas a Texas judge, with the agreement of prosecutors, recommended throwing out the convictions of 38 people from the small Panhandle town of Tulia -- most of them black -- after publicly conceding that the sole witness against them, former Swisher County deputy Tom Coleman, could not be believed. The move came during an appeals hearing for four men still serving prison sentences based on Coleman's testimony, but the sweeping decision will apply to everyone who was convicted or pled guilty in court proceedings that grew out of Coleman's undercover work.
In July 1999, local law enforcement authorities in Tulia rounded up 46 people, 39 of them black, in a drug sweep based solely on the uncorroborated testimony of Coleman, who was hired to work undercover by Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart. Despite inconsistencies and irregularities with Coleman's work apparent from the beginning -- there were no audio or video recordings of any alleged drug buys, the drug produced by Coleman was powder cocaine when crack was the drug used in Tulia, it was unlikely that a town of 5,000 could produce enough drug profits for 46 dealers, and no drugs, guns, or large amounts of cash were found on the defendants -- and loud cries of racially selective prosecutions, local juries convicted and sent to prison for decades the first defendants to go to trial. After watching the results of early trials, 27 other defendants pleaded guilty. Thirteen remain in prison. Cases against 10 others were dismissed as questions about Coleman's credibility started unraveling the state's effort to prosecute them and national media attention focused on the small Texas town.
The itinerant small-town cop who was named "Texas Lawman of the Year" in 1999 was soon exposed as having a history of law enforcement firings and sudden resignations, as well as having been arrested on fraud charges by Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart a year before he concocted the Tulia bust. Worse still, when Coleman testified last week at the hearing, he was uncertain of some events and could not remember others -- a critical problem, since by his own admission, he had failed to provide any corroborating evidence for the drug buys he claimed to have made. And worse yet, Coleman admitted to the everyday use of the word "nigger," a salient consideration when 39 of the 46 he had arrested were African-American.
After a hearing that began last month and made Coleman's credibility its central focus, retired Judge Ron Chapman of Dallas announced Tuesday that he is recommending that the state appeals court grant new trials to all defendants. "It is stipulated by all parties and approved by this court that Tom Coleman is simply not a credible witness under oath," said Chapman.
The state's special prosecutor, Rod Hobson, then announced that the state would seek to vacate all 38 convictions. "You can't rely on anything Coleman says, even at the risk of letting a guilty person go," he said. "His testimony caused us confidence problems that undermined the integrity of the verdicts, and if you want to call that a travesty of justice, you can."
But the reversal of the Tulia verdicts is not quite a done deal. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which has a reputation as a strongly pro-prosecution court, must approve Judge Chapman's recommendation. The appeals court is not bound to accept the recommendation, even though all parties agreed to it. In earlier proceedings, the court indicated that its ruling would revolve around whether there was other evidence of defendants' guilt and whether prosecutors had presented defense attorneys with evidence attacking Coleman's credibility in a timely fashion.
Amarillo attorney Jeff Blackburn, who spent hundreds of hours defending Tulia's victims, was nonetheless optimistic. "The Court of Criminal Appeals will bend over backwards to uphold a conviction, but this is a case with a pervasive pattern of shocking misconduct. Even that court will have a hard time justifying the continued imprisonment of people on the word of someone like Tom Coleman," he told DRCNet.
Special prosecutor Hobson said in court that even if the appeals court calls for new trials, the state would not seek to again prosecute any of the defendants.
Since the raids two-and-a-half years ago, the stench of racially motivated policing in the Tulia busts has driven both national media attention and a broad-based movement to seek redress. Groups ranging from local concerned citizens, such as the Tulia-based Friends of Justice (http://www.fojtulia.org), to national social justice organizations, such as the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice (http://www.kunstler.org), and national minority rights groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the League of United Latin American Citizens, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and private attorneys, most notably Blackburn, have worked non-stop to undo the injustice.
Spokesmen for some of those groups were jubilant at the decision, but took pains to underscore that they believed much more work remained to be done. "The victory is not complete," said Alan Bean of Friends of Justice, a group that has worked tirelessly to undo the Tulia verdicts despite local ostracism. "We still have to wait for the Court of Criminal Appeals, but also, there will be a tendency for people to look at this and say the system worked," he told DRCNet. "The system didn't work. If you want justice in Texas, all it takes is 25 or 30 local people to endure years of abuse, and some sort of New York media guru to publicize your story, then enlisting groups like the NAACP and the ACLU to file suit on your behalf, then finding local attorneys who will put in thousands of hours without pay. This was extraordinary. How can anyone claim the system works? This is a badly broken criminal justice system."
The Kunstler Fund's Randy Credico, who has spent months in Tulia and elsewhere in Texas over the past two years, added that the court victory in Tulia should not obscure larger problems in the criminal justice system, and neither should it suggest that what happened in the West Texas town is unusual. "There is still probably 20 years worth of work to do in Texas," said Credico. "I'm gratified that this is nearly over, but we should not lose focus on the bigger picture," he told DRCNet. "Tom Coleman is the Lt. Calley [scapegoat for the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam] of this operation. He was acting at the behest of the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force, which is basically a pirate ship raiding and plundering across the Panhandle. They instigated him, they covered up for him, they perjured themselves for him."
The task forces are a problem throughout the state, said Credico. "These kinds of abuses happen all across Texas and it is the task forces that are responsible for all these ugly games being played around the state." Credico will remain in Texas, he said, adding that he was part of a group that will meet with elected officials about reining in the drug task forces. "Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart was a pawn. The Panhandle task force was the beneficiary of Coleman's lies; they got grant money based on his 'success,' and other task forces do the same thing. They generate small busts in large numbers to prove their worth and get more money."
And after having spent considerable time in Tulia, Credico is willing to put in a kind word for the embattled town. "People here have gotten a bum rap," he said. "Tulia is not the most racist town in the country. This isn't Klan country. There are a thousand towns in the South that are the same, and for that matter, the New York Police Commissioner behaves in largely the same way as Sheriff Stewart. This injustice is a nationwide problem, not limited to small-town Texas."
Attorney Blackburn was equally critical of the criminal justice system. "There has been a suggestion from prosecutors that this shows the system works and this somehow vindicates the legal system. That's garbage. The state of justice in Texas sucks. You can print that," he said. "The people in Tulia are only going free because I spent $72,000 of my own time working on this, because other lawyers rallied to do the same, because a whole coalition came together because of these injustices. The system is badly broken. How many other Tulias are out there?"
Blackburn also pointed the finger at the Lone Star State's rampaging drug task forces. "Coleman is a pawn, Sheriff Stewart is a pawn, it's the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force who are ultimately the primary wrongdoers. They hired Coleman, they supervised him -- if you want to call it that -- they testified that he did a good job," Blackburn said. "And he did -- for them. He got the busts and convictions for the numbers they needed to get more grants. It's all about the money. It makes me sick to my stomach."
But Blackburn isn't just getting indigestion, he is getting even. "We are looking at taking legal action against the task force," he said. "There are a lot of wrongdoers who have yet to face the bar of justice." And while he applauded a $250,000 settlement from Swisher County to the 38 victims, it could be just the beginning. "We consider that Swisher County's down payment."
The fight will go the legislature as well. "Because of Tulia, we managed to get a bill passed last year that requires corroboration of testimony by informants, but that wouldn't even have applied to Coleman," Blackburn said. "We want the corroboration requirement to apply to every police officer in the state of Texas. And we will try to abolish or severely restrict these task forces."
But while Credico and others were looking at the big picture, for Tulia defendants and their families the reaction was more personal, a mix of bitterness and relief. Joseph Moore, a retired hog farmer named as a "kingpin" by Coleman who remains in prison, told the New York Times Wednesday that he hoped to leave the area. "The last 45 months in prison have been hell for me," Moore said. "My diabetes started to act up, and I almost died in jail. I don't know if anyone can understand what it means to almost die alone, incarcerated by mistake."
"Kids have lost parents and families have lost money because of this," said Tynisha Winkfield, a bartender at the town's nearly all-white Country Club, who had several relatives caught up in the busts.
And the Associated Press spoke with Pattie Brookins, mother of imprisoned Freddie Brookins, Jr., one of the four imprisoned men whose challenge to their convictions led to Tuesdays ruling. Brookins could not stop weeping as she stood on the courthouse steps after hearing the news, the AP reported. "It's been a long time coming," Brookins said. "I guess this is what satisfaction feels like."
But now the future looms, said Credico. "A lot of people who come back from prison will not recognize this town. People have left. There are no jobs, there are no opportunities, the economy is bad. The Kunstler Fund raised $35,000 to help these people, but that's not nearly enough."
Those convicted based on Coleman's testimony will share in the $250,000 settlement agreed to by Swisher County authorities, Bean and Credico said. "That's not a lot of money when you divide it among 38 people," said Credico, "but it will help."