Tuesday, January 11, 2005

A two-bit crime in a half-bit town

This is the fourth installment of Rev. Alan Bean's series guest blogging for Grits from the Tom Coleman perjury trial. For more, see the Amarilo paper's story here, AP's coverage here, UPI's here, Knight Ridder's here.

The last time Joe Moore saw Marvin Marshall the "hanging judge" was dying of cancer, or so it seemed at the time. But Marshall didn’t die. Like many judges who find themselves in poor health or facing retirement, Marshall got himself appointed as a visiting judge. David Gleason, the judge in Coleman’s perjury trial, is a visiting judge as is Ron Chapman, the Dallas judge who presided over Tulia evidentiary hearings in the spring of 2003.

Marvin Marshall recently resigned from the visiting judge program to join Tom Coleman’s crack legal team. But why? Did some well healed Tom Coleman advocate make attorneys like Marvin Marshall, John Read and Kirk Lechtenberger an offer they couldn’t refuse? Or do these men believe that a grave injustice is being inflicted on their client? Tom Coleman isn’t picking up the tab. As John Read bragged to the media shortly after taking on this case, "Tom Coleman couldn’t afford me in two life times."

I’m glad Tom Coleman has first class legal assistance. I wish John Read or Rod Hobson could have represented Joe Moore in December of 1999. Joe’s trial would certainly have lasted longer than a single day. Joe might even have been acquitted. He certainly wouldn’t have received a ninety-year sentence.

Instead, Joe was defended by Kregg, Hukill, a court appointed attorney from a town even smaller than Tulia. Hukill advised Joe to accept the twenty-five year plea bargain Terry McEachern had so graciously offered.

"I’d be dead by then," Joe replied, "I ain’t takin’ time for something I didn’t do."

"But Joe," the sympathetic attorney implored, "a jury could give you ninety years."

"Then you tell ‘em to crank it up!" the big hog farmer spat back. Relaying this story a few weeks ago Joe shook his head slowly and said, "Man, did they crank it up!"

Tom Coleman stands accused of committing a two-bit crime in a half-bit town. Cochran County Attorney J. C. Adams drew a little blackboard diagram for us on this afternoon. Mr. Adams office is located on the south side of Washington Street in tiny Morton, Texas. I had no trouble picturing the scene because I tried to talk to Adams over a year ago. "I’m through with this Coleman thing," he told me. "Do you realize how many of my kid’s ball games I’ve missed driving up to Tulia, only to be told that my testimony wasn’t needed after all? I don’t ever want to hear Coleman’s name again."

But there he was on the afternoon of January 11, 2005 (my fifty-second birthday, incidentally) sketching out the fatal scene on a chalkboard. Eight years have elapsed since the deal went down in Morton, Texas and this was J.C. Adams’ first chance to relate the chilling details in open court.

As Adams motored west on Washington street past the Wallace Oil Outlet he spied an ordinary man clad in "standard country and western wear" pulling a gas pump out of a "primer grey" truck. "Without a shadow of a doubt it was Tom Coleman," no more than twelve paces away. That pump, Adams told us, was for county vehicles only.

Two weeks later, Chief Deputy Raymond Weber told Adams that on two occasions Deputy Coleman had purchased far more fuel than his county vehicle could hold.

That’s what you call a two-bit crime. And if Tom Coleman was a patient man nothing would have come of it. But after leaving Morton, Texas in the middle of a shift the gypsy cop found himself in need of a job. When prospective employers called the Cochran County Sheriff’s office in search of a character reference they were informed that Coleman had fueled his personal vehicle with county gas. No big deal, a two-bit crime to be sure, but enough to send Tom’s resume to the trash heap.

An indignant Tom Coleman called up J.C. Adams and threatened Cochran County with a lawsuit if they didn’t stop telling lies about him. With the statute of limitations winding down on Coleman’s two-bit crime an angry Adams decided to press charges. Nobody likes an ultimatum.

"So how much did [Coleman] owe," attorney Rod Hobson asked J.C. Adams, "besides the gas that he stole?"

The ugly answer was that Coleman owed almost $7,000 to fifteen different merchants. "How many merchants you got over in Morton?" Hobson asked.

"Not many more than that," Adams replied in his laconic West Texas drawl.

This afternoon Judge Ron Chapman briefly took the stand to testify that Tom Coleman lied under oath in an official proceeding. More importantly, Chapman said, these lies were material in destroying Tom Coleman’s credibility.

Having established that much, the prosecution rested its case.

The Tulia drug case has garnered international publicity; so why was so much attention being paid to penny-ante crimes and misdemeanors committed almost ten years ago in a town that makes Tulia look like a booming metropolis?

Stealing gas pales in comparison with faking drug deals. But lawyers work with what they’ve got. The statute of limitations has run on Coleman’s drug sting testimony; but the lies he told at the Tulia evidentiary hearings are still fair game.

And, as Rod Hobson is sure to remind the jury in his closing statements, a lie is a lie and a liar is a liar. The Tulia drug sting unraveled because Tom Coleman was exposed as a lying son-of-a-bitch. That impression will be reinforced, albeit in unspectacular fashion, by this week’s perjury trial.

Tom Coleman isn’t so much evil as he is pathetic. But maybe that’s the point: you don’t hire tragically compromised people to make uncorroborated drug cases. In fact, we shouldn’t be sending folks away for decades on the uncorroborated word of fallible human being. Tom Coleman is just a loose cog in a broken machine.

Joe Moore takes no pleasure in seeing his nemesis brought low. "It’s nice to be on the other side this time," he admitted today as he paused between bites of chicken fried steak. "But what good’s it gonna do to lock up old Tom Coleman when they ain’t laid a finger on Terry McEachern, Larry Stewart and all them that put that rascal on the street?"

Perhaps that’s why Marvin Marshall signed on to Coleman’s defense team: he likes the system the way it is.

This really isn’t about Coleman anymore. It’s about Texas, it’s about the war on drugs, and it’s about restoring sanity to a grotesque criminal justice system.

Will Tom Coleman become the rolling snowball that sparks an avalanche? Please Jesus, let it be so.

Alan Bean
Tulia, Texas

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