Emblematic of the former, happier, group is Vanita Gupta who took over as acting head of the Civil Rights Division at the US Justice Department in October but, in a past life, was once co-counsel on behalf of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the legal tussle following the Tulia drug busts. She went on to run national ACLU's Campaign to End Mass Incarceration before President Obama selected her for the Civil Rights post.
The Tulia episode, which for all intents and purposes inaugurated Texas' 21st century criminal-justice reform movement as we know it today, transformed the political and legal landscape surrounding the drug war and innocence issues in this state. Bail mechanisms put in place to free the Tulia defendants while awaiting the processing of habeas writs were later routinely used to free DNA exonerees. Voting blocks first created to pass reform legislation in the wake of the growing national scandal became templates for future criminal justice legislation, including Texas' much-vaunted 2007 probation reforms. And the abolition of Texas' drug task force system significantly shifted the focus of local law enforcement in ways that we couldn't foresee at the time.
So Grits couldn't avoid a moment of nostalgia when this profile on Gupta - who in the wake of the post-Ferguson police accountability maelstrom became an instant national figure - prominently featured her years working on the Tulia case as a formative experience:
In 2001, a 26-year-old, fresh out of law school, had just started at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and was looking for a case. When she saw a short documentary about a troubling large-scale drug bust in a tiny Texas town, with facts she thought were "almost too outrageous to believe," as she later put it, Vanita Gupta decided to check things out for herself.For the record, the Tulia settlement didn't "require" the drug task forces to be disbanded. That happened after a five-year campaign resulting in legislation by Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa to put the drug task forces under control of the Department of Public Safety. Most of them refused to accept oversight or follow the rules, leaving Gov. Rick Perry little choice but to de-fund them in the end.
Tulia, Texas, a town of about 5,000 people, was the scene of a large drug bust in 1999 that rounded up more than 10 percent of the city's small black population. A total of 46 people -- mostly black, but a few of them white and in relationships with African-Americans -- were arrested on charges of trafficking cocaine. Local news coverage celebrated the arrests, with one newspaper proclaiming that Tulia's streets had been "cleared of garbage." The defendants were convicted and given extraordinarily lengthy sentences: 300 years. 90 years. 60 years.
The evidence against many of them? Uncorroborated testimony of a single man: a former rodeo cowboy who regularly used racial slurs, whom local police had hired to go undercover and target "street-level" dealers.
After a few days of meetings with family members and a local attorney, Gupta returned to her New York office with so many documents she had to buy an extra suitcase at Walmart. The case would soon grab still more attention. "60 Minutes" deemed the case one of the "worst miscarriages of justice in recent memory." The New York Times described it as a "national symbol of racial injustice." The agent on whose testimony the case rested, who had been named Texas Lawman of the Year in 1999 for his work in Tulia, was called "devious" by a Texas judge, who said he had committed "blatant perjury." The agent was later convicted on aggravated perjury charges. Gov. Rick Perry (R) pardoned most of the Tulia defendants, and Gupta helped the plaintiffs secure a $5 million settlement that required the federally funded drug task force responsible for the arrests to be disbanded.
But Tulia wasn't an isolated incident, Gupta said, it was just the tip of the iceberg. "There is a need for more systemic reform to prevent other Tulias from taking place," she said in a 2004 interview with NYU Law, her alma mater.
Still, Vanita played a pivotal role. And though we haven't communicated in a couple of years, I'd like to think those formative experiences 15 years ago which shaped both of us so significantly still connect us in some small way. I'm really quite proud of her.