Although the arrests and convictions of some 46 people -- 39 of them African-American -- swept up in a July 1999 raid in Tulia, Texas, have now been thoroughly discredited (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/281.html#tuliavictory) and the undercover cop involved charged with perjury (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/284.html#colemanindicted), 13 of those who were convicted or pled guilty remain behind bars. But perhaps not for long, as various moves are underway to win their release. And the Tulia fiasco continues to reverberate far beyond the Texas panhandle, with a US congressional committee now poised to take a look at not only at Tulia but also at the broader issue of federal funding of anti-drug task forces.
In Austin this week, the Texas Senate unanimously passed a bill to allow the 13 remaining imprisoned Tulia defendants to be released on bond while the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reviews a state judge's recommendation that all Tulia defendants get new trials and a special prosecutor's recommendation that all charges be dropped. Although a March hearing that led to the recommendations was a resounding denunciation of undercover lawman Tom Coleman and a repudiation of the verdicts, the Court of Criminal Appeals is known as a pro-prosecutorial court (see newsbrief below), and Texas lawmakers are seeking to cover their bets. The bill would take effect immediately if passed by two-thirds of the House, or on September 1st if passed by a simple majority. But while the bill easily passed the Senate and has support in the House, it remains to be seen whether the lower chamber will have a chance to vote on it. More than 50 Democratic members of the House fled the state to neighboring Oklahoma this week in order to block a vote on redistricting, but because their absence left the legislative body without a quorum, it also prevents any action on any other matters.
Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), the sponsor of the bill, urged his colleagues in the House to pass the bill this session. "Now the challenge is to complete the mission by passing this legislation in the House," Whitmire told the Houston Chronicle. "It is an embarrassment to the state of Texas to let something like this happen," Whitmire said. "If we're going to be tough and smart on crime, we've also got to be fair." The effort to redress the suffering of the imprisoned defendants also has the support of top state officials, including Lt. Gov David Dewhurst (R) and Gov. Rick Perry (R). "This is a real travesty of justice," Dewhurst said. "I think our only recourse is to release the Tulia 13 on bond until the court of appeals has made its final decision."
Gov. Perry, for his part, a day earlier called for the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to investigate the cases of the Tulia defendants to determine whether to grant them clemency. In a letter sent to board chairman Gerald Garrett, Perry expressed "grave concerns" about the Tulia verdicts. "After reviewing this information, I have grave concerns about the potential miscarriage of justice in cases based on testimony from a sole witness whose truthfulness is in doubt," the governor wrote.
But Garrett's initial response suggested that unjustly jailed Tulia victims should not hold their breaths waiting for the board to act. "There is a lot of emphasis on a timely decision, but we also have a responsibility to take all the facts into consideration and to move expeditiously and give every case a full and entire review," Garrett told the Chronicle. Each case would be investigated independently, Garrett said, and presented to an 18-member board that could recommend actions ranging from a full pardon to a commutation. There is no timetable for action by the board.
And for Jeff Blackburn, the lead attorney seeking justice for the Tulia 46, the governor's call was a welcome sign but not nearly enough. "Every single person convicted on the word of Tom Coleman deserves complete exoneration and a total clearing of their name," he said. "Any proposal short of that would be an injustice."
While efforts to gain justice for the Tulia victims are underway in Texas, the scandal is also about to be aired in the US House Judiciary Committee. On May 7, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), the ranking Democrat on the committee, announced that committee chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) had agreed to investigate law enforcement misdeeds in the Tulia bust. A Judiciary Committee spokesman, Jeff Lungren, confirmed that Sensenbrenner will hold hearings on the matter. "Sensenbrenner wants to do active and aggressive oversight of the federal task force that was involved," Lungren told the Chronicle. Sensenbrenner was responding to a request from three prominent members of the Congressional Black Caucus that the committee review the Tulia bust.
In addition to Conyers, Reps. Charles Rangel (D-NY) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) requested the hearings. But the problem of out-of-control drug law enforcement is not limited to a rogue cop in small-town Texas, said participants in a May 7 NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund forum in Washington, DC. "Tulia is not just in Texas. Tulia is all over," said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
There are signs that Sensenbrenner and the Judiciary Committee recognize this and are preparing for a broader review of federally-funded anti-drug task forces. (Rogue Tulia cop Tom Coleman was acting on behalf on the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force.) According to a report by Elayne Clift in the May 19 issue of Newsweek, Sensenbrenner has now "agreed to hold hearings on the workings of a Justice Department fund that funnels money to local drug task forces around the country."
It would be good news indeed if Congress were to take a good, hard look at Justice Department task force funding. By all accounts, the task forces are rewarded for arrests and convictions, even of low-level offenders, with more federal funding to make more arrests. As DRCNet has reported with depressing regularity, these federally-funded task forces have been running amok all over the country.
Visit the following past Week Online articles for previous DRCNet reports on task forces abuses:
http://www.drcnet.org/wol/286.html#swatsuitVisit http://www.fojtulia.org and http://www.kunstler.org for further information on the Tulia prisoners and the campaign to free them.