Thursday, January 13, 2005

Special Prosecutor: Sheriff Stewart Needs a Lawyer

This is the fifth installment of Rev. Alan Bean's series guest blogging the Tom Coleman perjury trial. See also coverage by the Amarillo paper, AP, and a local TV station.

"In light of some of the comments that he has made, Judge, I suggest that you appoint Mr. Stewart a Lawyer."

This terse remark from Lubbock attorney Rod Hobson established the dramatic apex for a day dripping with breathtaking developments. The evening news in Lubbock and Amarillo sizzles with speculation Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart will soon be indicted on perjury charges just like the hapless undercover officer he has so staunchly defended. A tad premature perhaps, but the Swisher County Sheriff is in deep trouble.

Judge David Gleason took Mr. Hobson’s suggestion to heart and by the end of the day Larry Pickard Stewart was represented by one of Lubbock’s premier attorneys.

For the first time in this five-year odyssey the legal interests of Larry Stewart and Tom Coleman have been severed. Coleman’s attorneys watched contentedly as Mr. Hobson savaged the defenseless Sheriff with embarrassing questions and cutting sidebar comments. Larry Stewart stood alone.

When court reconvened following the lunch break, Mr. Stewart had yielded his place on the witness stand to Jerry Massengill, a Sergeant with the Amarillo Police Force who served as Coleman’s supervisor during the eighteen-month Tulia investigation.

If Tom Coleman’s Dream Team had the best interests of their client at heart they would have poked a few holes in the state’s case before shutting things down. Coleman might have been convicted but you don’t attach a stiff sentence to a two-bit crime in a half-bit town.

A steady stream of moths has been drawn to the Tulia flame ever since the Coleman sting morphed into a national story in the fall of 2000. Coleman’s current handlers have been dazzled by the knowledge that whoever defended Coleman in this high profile trial would be vaulted into the media spotlight.

But those who would champion Coleman must understand that Tom’s adult life is strewn with the debris of failed relationships, unpaid bills, pissed-off employers and rancorous legal proceedings. How do you defend the indefensible?

Read, Lechtenberger and Marshall portray their client as a lamb sent to the slaughter so that men like Larry Stewart, Jerry Massengill and prosecutor Terry McEachern can evade their just deserts. Unfortunately, you can’t decry the sins of Coleman’s superiors without opening up a whole range of fact issues unrelated to the indictment in the present trial. If Coleman’s attorneys had their man’s best interests at heart this trial would have stayed in Morton, Texas; instead it has migrated to Tulia.

Tom Coleman was hired even though a background check uncovered enough red flags to outfit a battalion of Bolsheviks. The fact that he was the only applicant might have had something to do with it. Jerry Massengill contacted a Texas Ranger who said Tom was a "good person" and a "hard worker," who "needed constant supervision". Massengill once testified that he observed Coleman in the field on exactly two occasions.

"What else did Bullock tell you?" Rod Hobson asked.

"He said that Coleman stirs up . . . stuff," Massengill replied.

"Is that what the document in your hand says?" an incredulous Hobson asked. "Let me see that paper. Doesn’t it say, ‘stirs up shit’?"

"Yes," Massengill agreed, 'that’s what it says."

Mr. Bullock is right. Wherever Coleman has traveled you will find oodles of shit, well stirred, raw, steaming and malodorous. Coleman’s defenders keep forgetting that he is just a shit-stirring type of guy.

Massengill’s next phone call was to Cliff Harris, Coleman’s supervisor in Iraan (pronounced Ira-Ann) Texas. Harris cautioned that Coleman was "too gung-ho" and represented "a discipline problem." Worse still, Harris was concerned about "possible mental problems."

During evidentiary hearings in 2003, Massengill suggested that the bit about "mental problems" was followed by the words, "lost custody of children." Since any parent would be slightly addled after such a loss, Massengill hoped that Coleman’s psychological difficulties had been situational and therefore temporary. You never know, right?

Unfortunately, Mr. Harris wasn’t finished. Coleman also had a problem paying bills (sound familiar?) and had once kidnapped his children for several weeks after losing a custody battle.

"Who made the decision to hire him?" Hobson asked.

"Ultimately, the decision would have been Sheriff Stewart’s," the selfless Massengill replied.

Coleman’s hiring was the first embarrassing issue the Dream Team allowed into the courtroom when they called Stewart and Massengill to the witness stand. But the courtroom drama quickly fast forwarded to August 8, 1998, the day Sheriff Stewart had to "arrest" his own undercover man on theft charges filed in Cochran County.

The warrant Stewart received via teletype demanded that Coleman be arrested and conveyed to Cochran County. Instead, Stewart simply informed his deputy that charges had been filed against him, took his fingerprints, and had him released on a personal recognizance bond. Coleman called his attorney, a deal was worked out over the phone, and after a week of vacation Tulia’s undercover cop was back on the streets.

"Surely someone called Cochran County?" Rod Hobson asked.

No one had.

When Coleman said he had "cleared up" his legal problems and passed a polygraph to that effect he was returned to duty. None of Coleman’s superiors made the slightest attempt to ascertain what he had been charged with or how the case had been resolved.

Public officials in Tulia will tell you that their opposite numbers in Morton cooked up a bogus gas-stealing charge to force Tom Coleman to pay his bills. Folks in the now-defunct Panhandle Narcotics Task Force shared this belief. Why call the Sheriff’s office in Cochran County, they asked themselves, when we know they’re just a pack of liars. Cochran and Swisher Counties have been on a collision course for seven years now and the long-postponed train wreck may be unfolding in the Lubbock County courtroom.

Rod Hobson has always been stunned by this staunch refusal to ascertain the obvious. "Have you ever heard the term ‘deliberate indifference’?" Hobson asked Stewart. "It means not wanting to know what’s out there, burying your head in the sand, right?"

"Yes, sir," Stewart replied lamely.

Deliberate indifference has driven the Tulia fiasco from the beginning. Coleman’s handlers in Tulia and Amarillo have remained willfully ignorant of the gypsy cop’s dark side. Coleman’s attorneys seem to have fallen into the same trap. The big loser is Coleman himself.

Alan Bean,
Tulia, Texas

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