Monday, January 17, 2005

Reflections from Tulia: Preachers, farmers and Yankee lawyers fight system that doesn't work

This is Rev. Alan Bean's final installment guest blogging from the Tom Coleman perjury trial. (Newsclips from the verdict are accumulated here.) In addition, Rev. Bean explores some history of Friends of Justice's efforts on behalf of Tulia defendants, including the little-known story of why Judge Ed Self recused himself from the Tulia case at a pivotal moment, and what effect that had on the outcome. See his previous articles here. Many thanks to Alan for doing Grits readers this favor; you did a great job blogging the trial.

On Friday, January 14th, 2005, Tom Coleman was convicted of lying about when he first learned that Cochran County officials had indicted him for stealing gas. The jury acquitted the ex-cop on charges of lying about having stolen the gas. The charge was well supported by the facts but sloppy gas logs and weak eyewitness testimony provided a few shreds of reasonable doubt.

John Read and Kirk Lechtenberger didn't come to Lubbock to defend Tom Coleman; they came to undermine the integrity of the "writ hearings" that had placed their client in legal jeopardy. They argued that the state's case against Coleman was a continuation of a "smear campaign," instituted by "lawyers from the East coast" against Tom Coleman. They asserted that attorney John Nation had passively allowed the undercover officer to be mauled by Yankee lawyer Mitch Zamoff.

Coleman's attorneys portrayed him as a good cop who made good cases. Tom's mangled syntax shows that he isn't too bright, they admitted and perhaps Tom had a few more skeleton's in the closet than your average sinner, but that didn't stop him from buying dope from Tulia drug dealers. Coleman was on trial because a slick Yankee had badgered a simple man into unfortunate misstatements.

John Nation and Kurt Lechtenberger were particularly offended that, having failed to defend Mr. Coleman in Tulia, Dallas attorney John Nation was now trying to send a good cop to jail.

And why, they asked, was Yankee lawyer Jennifer Klar in the courtroom? After digging up dirt on Coleman for the defense team at the writ hearings of 2003, Klar was now passing damning information to Mr. Nation in a Lubbock courtroom.

These arguments were laid out with particular clarity during the sentencing phase of Tom Coleman's perjury trial. "These are drug dealers-users of drugs in Tulia, Texas," John Read told the jury. "You never heard anyone say that these people are innocent of selling drugs." The people of Tulia and their fine Sheriff have been unfairly accused, Read insisted, and the time had come to set the record straight. Calling the evidentiary hearings "a black spot on the system," Read suggested it was time for the good people of Tulia to get on with their lives.

Special prosecutor Rod Hobson met these arguments head on. "Thank God for Yankee lawyers," he responded, without them the truth in Tulia might never have been revealed.

John Read and his colleagues were beaming during the photo op and news conference that followed the trial. Rod Hobson was subdued. Asked if the assault on the 2003 proceeding bothered him Hobson replied, "No, that's what they had to do. They didn't have a chance on the facts."

The Coleman operation has always been hard to defend but for a long time it didn't matter. So long as Judge Ed Self was presiding over the process inconvenient questions were simply ruled out of order. Prosecutor Terry McEachern wasn't too concerned when he learned the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had called for further fact finding. Judge Self assured McEachern that the matter could be dealt with outside the courtroom. So what if a few Yankee lawyers submit briefs laying out their arguments? Ed Self would toss their complaints in the trash can and tell the appeals court that all was well with the Swisher County Courthouse.

But then Plainview attorney Eric Willard felt moved to write a letter to the Tulia Herald. Willard was trying to unseat Ed Self in the 2002 election and feared that Tulia's support for the drug sting might be hurting him politically. There were problems with the Coleman drug sting, the Plainview attorney told Herald readers, but the good people of Swisher County weren't to blame.

Angie Stewart Cox, the loyal daughter of Sheriff Larry Stewart, immediately countered Willard's attempt to distinguish between good jurors and bad public officials. If Eric Willard was such a faithful friend of Swisher County, she asked, why had he accepted a large campaign contribution from the infamous Alan Bean?

For over two years I had been denouncing everyone associated with the Tulia sting. When Eric Willard and his friend David Brito started publishing an independent paper called The Observer of West Texas I had the perfect cudgel for smacking Larry Stewart, McEachern, Self and the task force boys in Amarillo upside the head. Willard and Brito despised Judge Self and gleefully published every bit of scurrilous prose I sent their way. My father-in-law Charles Kiker helped the effort by sending a steady stream of letters and op-ed pieces to the Tulia and Amarillo newspapers.

While Ed Self and company were fuming over this verbal fusillade, Swisher County farmer and amateur lawyer Gary Gardner was filing ethics complaints and perjury charges against the principal actors in the Tulia fiasco. No one seemed interest in filing writs of habeas corpus on behalf defendants like Joe Welton Moore, so Gardner decided to file pro se writs on their behalf. He would stay up all night scheming, poring over his well thumbed edition of Blacks Law Dictionary and coming up with reasons why Joe Moore had been wrongfully convicted. When morning gilded the skies Gary would send me his latest thoughts and I would work with them until Gary Gardner the writer sounded like Gary Gardner the talker. Nobody talks as good as a Texan and no one talks Texan as good as Gardner.

When Judge Self filed a baseless ethics complaint against pro bono attorney Jack Johnson, Gary and I helped Jack frame a response, then helped Jack file a counter complaint against Mr. Self. In the interest of full disclosure I published an article in the Observer of West Texas in which I compared our Jack Johnson to the black boxer bearing the same name who was hounded out of the country for the crime of knocking out white opponents.

There was a method to all this madness. Despite all the perjury charges, writs and ethics complaints we had filed, legal amateurs generally make little headway in the justice system. When Vanita Gupta and the Legal Defense Fund of the NAACP lined up Yankee lawyers to take over the writ writing process we sang hymns of thanksgiving and joyfully stepped aside. Even with $600-an-hour attorneys in the fight we faced an uphill battle. With Ed Self firmly in control of the legal process it would be desperately difficult to prove that laws had been broken in the Swisher County courtroom.

But if the perpetrators of the Coleman sting controlled the legal process the court of public opinion was controlled by Gary Gardner, Alan Bean and Charles Kiker. From the moment the Tulia drug sting hit the pages of The New York Times Swisher County attorneys placed an informal gag order on McEachern, Stewart and Self. It was their outrageous fortune to absorb our slings and arrows, but so long as they maintained a stoic silence they had little to fear from us. The sticks and stones that break your bones were barred from the Swisher County courtroom.

Sheriff Larry Stewart doesn't drink, doesn't smoke and doesn't chase women. A faithful deacon down at Tulia's Campbellite Church, Larry leads the singing, serves communion and even teaches Sunday School. Stewart can be found wherever men in cowboy hats and "Tulia Cattle Auction" caps meet to mumble over their coffee. Larry joined the drug war because his constituents asked him to and they have supported him every arduous step of the way.

When Sheriff Stewart performed his ostrich act ("I don't know, I can't remember, I really couldn't say") the good people of Tulia followed suit. The only things folks in Swisher County knew about Tom Coleman was that he had "walked the walk and talked the talk" in demon-haunted places where angels feared to tread. When Sheriff Stewart's supporters launched a letter-writing campaign in the fall of 2000 they simply gave Kiker Gardner and Bean (locally known as "the KGB") more ammunition to fire back at them.

When it comes to the subject of the Coleman operation Angie Stewart Cox is as proudly and studiously ignorant as anybody in Tulia. If the saintly Larry Stewart was standing by his man, Angie and every other right-thinking resident, was standing by her daddy.

"Any attack on the undercover investigation, the officers involved, and subsequent trials and convictions" Angie told the Tulia Herald should be considered "an attack on our entire community." The Tulia story was just a game "to the media, special interest groups, and their political pawns," but "to those of us who live here, it is our future." Angie intended to "vote for a candidate who demonstrates fairness, honesty, and integrity."

When Angie Stewart Cox's philippic hit the Tulia Herald I sensed an opportunity. "Angie Cox is right," I replied, "a vote for Ed Self is a vote for Tom Coleman."

If the Coleman operation was a glorious sting without spot or wrinkle, there was little to fear from a diligent weighing of the facts. "If Vanita Gupta of the Legal Defense Fund in New York has her way," I wrote, "the Swisher County courthouse will soon be the site of evidentiary hearing in which everyone involved in the Coleman sting will face probing questions from the sharpest legal minds in New York and Washington, DC."

I concluded with the words of Robert Frost:

But so with all, from babes that play

At hide-and-seek to God afar,

So all who hide too well away

Must speak and tell us who they are.

Gary Gardner added his voice to the lively debate. "I apologize, Angie," he wrote, "but I cannot and will not vote for Republican Ed Self, for I have witnessed Ed allow a man named Tom Coleman lie under oath in Ed's courtroom, and Ed accepted it while personally knowing the testimony was a lie even as it was given."

Incensed, Judge Ed Self fired off an angry letter defending his role in the Coleman affair. The only evidence he had kept out of the courtroom was "neither relevant nor admissible according to the Rules of Evidence." In fact, he had sent all the evidence in question to the Court of Appeals and they fully concurred with his conclusions.

He then launched into the kind of ad hominem assault we had been trying to evoke for years. "Bean has not sent any of his writing to me;" he said, and "Bean has not filed any written document with the Court." Since Gary Gardner had handled the legal strategy this was technically true. Furthermore, "neither Bean nor Gardner were parties to the cases, are not parties to the cases, and never will be parties to the cases."

Two weeks later Judge Self was signing an Order of Recusal removing himself from the evidentiary process. By defending the Tulia drug trials he demonstrated that the habeas hearings the Texas Court of Appeals had requested would be an empty formality with a foregone conclusion. With the hearings short weeks away he was suddenly facing an open, objective inquiry into the Tulia affair.

Four days before the hearings were scheduled to begin Dallas attorney John Nation was asked to help Terry McEachern. "I didn't know anything about the Tulia cases," he recently told me. "If it wasn't in the sports section I didn't know it was happening."

If John Nation didn't know much about Tulia when he entered the courtroom in Tulia, four days of gripping testimony from dozens of witnesses filled in the basic outline. Tom Coleman's performance was an utter disaster. Realizing that the state's star witness had repeatedly lied under oath, Mr. Nation concluded the state of Texas could no longer defend him without suborning perjury. The evidentiary hearings came to a screeching halt and attorneys for both the state and the defense jointly stipulated that Mr. Coleman lacked credibility under oath. A month later, a Swisher County grand jury indicted Tom Coleman on three counts of aggravated perjury and a year later thirteen of Coleman's victims were set free in a dramatic scene at the Swisher County courthouse.

And now, twenty months after he was indicted by a Swisher County grand jury, Tom Coleman has been convicted of aggravated perjury. Sting defendants attending the trial were deeply disappointed when they learned their nemesis wouldn't be doing prison time. But getting an all-white jury in Lubbock Texas to convict a white cop on a felony charge is no easy feat and Rod Hobson and Yankee lawyer Jennifer Klar are to be commended for a tremendous achievement.

It is difficult to know if Coleman's attorneys believed all of the accusations they were slinging in the courtroom. Although Read et al bragged about reading through thousands of pages of trial transcripts their comments during the trial revealed only a superficial awareness of the relevant fact issues. For instance, accusing Freddie Brookins and his fellow defendants of being "in possession of drugs with intent to sell" was either a desperate misrepresentation or a sign of gross ignorance.

I doubt the jury had little interest in the evidentiary hearings of 2003 or that the Yankee lawyer issue figured prominently in their deliberations. They probably opted for probation because people go to prison for murder and drug dealing, not for lying.

Media interest in the Tulia story is receding rapidly. When the New York Times called me on Friday night it was quickly obvious that they hadn't been following the trial. The challenge now is to convince a cynical public that Tulia as a metaphor; a cautionary tale for the war on drugs.

The big lesson from Tulia is that the system doesn't work. Attorneys working within the system could were forced to make a deal with the devil and ask for God's forgiveness. Plainview attorney Paul Holloway traveled to Cochran County on his clients' behalf and invested thousands of hours in meticulous research. But in the end he found himself negotiating plea bargains. Given the constraints of the system it was the best he could do. Attorneys who accept court appointed cases must learn to live with the likes of Judge Ed Self. When they buck the system too vigorously they end up hurting their clients.

It should come as no surprise that the Tulia drug sting began with farmers like Gary Gardner, ex-preachers like Charles Kiker and Alan Bean and slaughterhouse foremen like Freddie Brookins Sr., or that the death blow was delivered by a band of Yankee lawyers. Just solutions were not available within the practical confines of the Texas legal system.

But on January 14, 2005 in Lubbock, Texas the Texas criminal justice system worked the way it was supposed to. Tom Coleman was represented by some of the best legal minds and mouths in the state of Texas and was still convicted of lying under oath. Tom will never work in law enforcement again and every narcotics officer in the state of Texas knows it. If that's the best we can do, we'll take it.

Alan Bean,
Tulia, Texas


annetta said...

Thank you for this timely report. Sometimes we do not get the ending of many judicial stories.

I will share this with others.

I guess that I am so conditioned to the knowledge that black people are nearly 50% of those incarcarated in the U.S.,that I no longer get that shocked.

It is the status quo, in other words.

We must commit ourselves to the issues of justice in the coming 4 years.

The Supreme Court nominees that are coming will create a dangerous next 20 years.

I have/had nearly lost hope.

But there is light always after dark. But we are in darkness now.

Every campaign in America is called a war - the war on drugs, the war on poverty are examples.

If we want peace we must work for justice.

I am tired of being a victim of the people who live in "the happy place." Once their world gets worse they will be hollering for justice too. Right now conditions are not bad enough for this realization.

Again, thank you for this information.

Anonymous said...

This is such BS!!!! I am from Tulia, graduated from THS and I know a lot of these 'poor' people that were wrongly arrested!!! Do you know that quite a few of the ones that were 'wrongly' arrested have been back to jail??? They were not convicted again in the 'evil' Swisher county but in other counties doing the same things they were convicted of in Swisher county the first time!!! I just wish you people would get a life and find someone that is truly wrongly convicted!!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"quite a few" ... out of 46 ... were re-arrested. And this proves, what?

It's also odd to tell someone to "get a life" when you're the one commenting on an 18 month old blog post.

Come back anytime, though. Maybe you'll like other offerings. :-)

Anonymous said...

The problem is that Tulia and the people who lived there and supported this kind of thing brought disgrace to all Texans. We have worked hard to build a new Texas, incorperating the best of the old and adopting the best of the new.
Tulia will be remembered for what they did and how the people supported the status quo.There will always be a permanent smear that will take years if ever for the town to overcome.
Maybe that is how it should be.

Anonymous said...

Just read Tulia (Nate Blakeslee). Out of the thousands of books perused in a sixty-one year life, it ranks among the very best. Now the surprise, I am a former Texas county sheriff (Upton County). I knew virtually all of the actors in the Tulia drama -- from a west Texas perspective. That includes ALL of the Pecos County officers mentioned and Texas Ranger Joe Coleman (father of Tom Coleman). In 1987 I was indicted, tried, and convicted of delivery of .88/100's of an oz. of marihuana to one of my deputies(see Dirty Cop? The Rise & Fall of a Texas Sheriff, Johnson's Ranch & Trading Post Press ( [2007]. Joe Coleman was okay, no more; certainly not the grand wizard former Pecos Co. Sheriff Bruce Wilson built him up to be in Blakeslee's tome. Tom, who worked as deputy at Iraan while I lived at Sheffield, TX in the late 1980s was (is? Who knows? Maybe he found Jesus) a piece of shit. He should have gone to prison. And that comes from a former elected law enforcement officer who once had his own boot in the doorway at Huntsville. Sheriff Gary Painter (AKA: "Thumper," Midland County) should be his in-house chaplain. Swisher Co. Sheriff Larry Stewart? Shoe shine boy.

Glenn Willeford
Chihuahua City, Mexico