Many Tulia residents and those associated with the July 23, 1999, raid by numerous law enforcement agencies shy away from talking publicly about the incident that catapulted the Swisher County town of about 5,000 into the spotlight and brought the discussion of small-town racism to the forefront. For some, including many of the 47 defendants arrested, the calamity of the investigation and the ensuing drama remains a wound that has not healed.
The episode began when dozens of people - most of them poor, African-American and with prior run-ins with the law - were hauled from their beds and paraded in front of local media on the morning of July 23.
The arrests were the culmination of a monthslong investigation by the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force, with much of the work conducted by undercover officer Tom Coleman. Many of the defendants were subsequently given long prison sentences by juries, and others accepted plea bargains.
But cases that first appeared solid began to collapse as Coleman's testimony drew greater and greater scrutiny. It was ultimately determined that Coleman was not credible after he gave conflicting testimony in court. Meanwhile, it was revealed that he had been arrested for theft, a charge for which he was never convicted. But his arrest was initially withheld from the defense, further eroding the credibility of the prosecution.
In the end, 35 defendants were pardoned by Gov. Rick Perry on Aug. 22, 2003, and taxpayers in 17 of the counties that participated in the regional task force paid them about $5.9 million as part of a settlement. The defendants split about $4 million, and attorneys were paid the rest.
Housing the incarcerated defendants was estimated to have cost Swisher County residents about $230,000, which translated to a 5.8 percent increase in county property taxes, according to the county in 2000. In April 2003, the county also agreed to pay $250,000 to the defendants in exchange for immunity from civil lawsuits.
In the end, all of Texas' drug task forces were ultimately consolidated under the Department of Public Safety and later disbanded by Governor Perry when other scandals kept cropping up in town after town across the state.
We tried after the Tulia scandals to convince the Texas Legislature to require corroboration of some sort in undercover drug buys like those Tom Coleman supposedly performed, but they extended that corroboration requirement only to informants, but not to peace officers. Thus now, ten years later, despite the fact that Tom Coleman was later convicted of perjury, the state can still obtain convictions based on the uncorroborated word of a single undercover officer.
See also a short video from the Globe-News featuring brief interviews with participants.
MORE: From Rev. Alan Bean at the Friends of Justice blog. As backgrond, Alan was a principal in the local Tulia organization, Friends of Justice, that formed to rally support around the case. Since then he's moved to the Metroplex and has been working on a variety of other civil rights cases including in Jena, Louisiana.