Saturday, January 08, 2005

Coleman trial already has pro-wrestling feel

This is the first installment in a series by Rev. Alan Bean of Tulia Texas, who will be featured as a guest blogger at Grits for Breakfast throughout the Tom Coleman perjury trial. More.

Tex Read (John H. Read II) is a high-dollar Dallas attorney who shoots from the lip and leaves the thinking to others. Family obligations may keep ol’ Tex from showing up on Monday to square off against special prosecutors Rod Hobson and John Nation. Read’s appearance at a staged media event on Friday could be taken as a sign that he is good to go on Monday morning. Or maybe, knowing that he won’t be around for the big show, Tex decided to grab for the gusto while the grabbing was good.

The argument that Hobson and Nation were improperly sworn in could have been made months ago. The fact that the motion was filed short days before trial shows that Mr. Read and company are grandstanding.

To get a feel for Tom Coleman’s attorney think of a professional wrestler making the most of his thirty seconds of microphone time. Better yet, imagine a youthful James Brown collapsing in the middle of a frantic rendition of "I Got a Woman." The brothers come on stage, wrap a black cape around the fallen singer’s frail shoulders, lift him to his feet and escort him off stage. After a few staggering steps, James Brown gets a shot of the spirit, tosses off the cape, grabs the microphone and rips back into his number as the band falls in behind him.

The James Brown image came to me as I watched Kirk Lechtenberger (the brains of the operation) trying to calm Mr. Read as the balding attorney did his crazy-lawyer act for the media at Coleman’s venue hearing in Tulia. The six-foot-eight Lechtenberger was the voice of reason; Read was Yosemite Sam, the loose cannon.

"You think someone was asleep or something was going on politically?” Read asked the camera yesterday. “You think someone was protecting someone politically in this deal and was afraid to raise too many issues and find out there was some poor police work going on. It had nothing to do with Tom Coleman. It had to do with who trained him. That's why they paid $5.5 million. It had nothing to do with Tom Coleman. They had to point the finger at somebody" (emphasis mine).

If Read and Lechtenberger take this tack when the trial opens next week things could get really interesting. Some claim the trial could go two weeks; others say it won’t last past a couple of days. Everything depends on whether Judge David Gleason allows Coleman’s attorneys to range beyond the fact issues cited in the indictment. It is commonly assumed that Coleman has been charged with faking drug deals in Tulia—not so. He stands accused of lying about events only tangentially related to the Tulia operation.

Coleman left Morton Texas owing local merchants almost $7,000 in unpaid bills and bank loans. Shortly after the Tulia operation began in the early days of 1998, Cochran County officials decided to force Coleman’s hand. The day Coleman left Morton the County Attorney filed a complaint with the Sheriff’s department to the effect that the former deputy had fraudulently filled up his personal vehicle with county gas. The statute of limitations had almost run on the complaint in the spring of 1998 when theft charges were filed against Coleman. On May 30th of that year Coleman signed a waiver of arraignment stating that he was aware that charges had been filed against him.

The issue became significant during the Tulia drug trials because the moment Coleman knew he was under indictment he should have been temporarily suspended pending resolution of the case. This didn’t happen. Defense attorneys argued that any cases made between May 30th and August 11, 1998 should be tossed out because Coleman did not have legal standing as a police officer during that period.

But much more was at stake than the handful of cases Coleman filed during the spring and summer of 1998. If he had failed to inform his superiors that he was under indictment Coleman had broken the law. If Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart and Lt. Mike Amos of the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force knew Coleman was under indictment and failed to take him off the job they too were in breach of the law.

The issue came to a head in May of 2000 during the probation revocation hearing of Mandis Barrow in Amarillo. Defense counsel Walt Weaver asked Coleman when he knew about the charges against him in Cochran County. Coleman said he had been informed in May of 1998, the answer he had given weeks earlier in another hearing. The state challenged the relevance of this line of questioning and Weaver was forced to explain himself. A light went on in Coleman’s feeble brain and when the question was repeated the undercover man said he found out about the charges against him for the first time when he was arrested in August of 1998.

But what about that waiver of arraignment Coleman had signed back on May of 1998. Coleman’s backers invented a clever theory: the undercover agent had signed a blank affidavit so that his attorney wouldn’t have to hunt him down for a signature if charges were filed.

This theory began to unravel during evidentiary hearings in March of 2003 when attorney Mitch Zamoff was able to demonstrate that the upper portion of Coleman’s signature clearly covered the text portion of the waiver, something that would have been impossible had Coleman actually signed a blank document.

The three-count indictment against Coleman claims that Coleman lied about signing a blank document, lied about when he first knew charges had been filed in Cochran County and lied when he said the theft charges were baseless.

If Judge David Gleason forces defense counsel to confine their trial strategy to these simple fact issues this trial could be over in a couple of days. But if Read and Lechtenberger are allowed to point the finger at Sheriff Stewart, the Panhandle Task Force and reassert the guilt of Coleman’s victims in Tulia this could prove to be a very long trial.

The smart money says that Gleason will restrict both sides to fact issues related to the indictment and that the trial will be over by the end of next week. That is certainly the dispensation the law enforcement community and the criminal justice system in Texas is devoutly wishing for. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Alan Bean
Tulia, Texas

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