Sunday, July 19, 2009

Tulia Ten Years Later

The Amarillo Globe-News today has a feature commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Tulia drug stings ("Tulia drug busts: 10 years later," July 19), which informs us that, to this day:

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.

That was actually the biggest lesson from the Tulia case for me: I took away no conclusions about racism or small-town bigotry, but instead gained a new understanding of what constitutes a fair trial. The Tulia cases were where I learned that, even though juries supposedly convict when they conclude someone is guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt," the law actually does not require the state to present sufficient evidence to reach that high threshold when testimony from a single person can convict. That's true even if that person is wearing a badge, and undercover drug stings aren't the only place in criminal law where that problem comes up.

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.


Anonymous said...

Read that in the Hub City Journal this morning. Also an article on A-2 about the innocence project losing money, etc. Was gonna send them to you but it appears you're bright-eyed and bushy-tailed this morning so you can find it yourownself.


Hook Em Horns said...

Another proud moment in Texas history!

Anonymous said...


This is a proud moment in Texas history. By that I mean an injustice was made right thanks to hard work of Grits and others. There is more to be done of course.

Hook Em Horns said...

If righting wrong is your goal, Texas is the place!

Anonymous said...

I read it online in AGN. Yesterday was "picnic" in Tulia, celebrating the birthday of Swisher County. Since I've been old enough to even consider such things, I've found it interesting that the birthday of Swisher County gets more attention in Swisher County than Independence Day. Anyway there was a big do here yesterday. My graduating class (1950)had a reunion in connection with it. I guess some of us were afraid we might not make it to a 60th anniversary reunion. Alan Bean and Nancy were here. Alan introduced himself to one of my classmates from Amarillo. "I'm Alan Bean." "Oh, I've heard a lot about you, and none of it was good." So I guess the wounds are not healed. Some say time wounds all heels. May it be so!
Charles Kiker, Tulia

Anonymous said...

The notion that we need to corroborate the testimony of police--just as we do confidential informants, is a slap in the face to all of those dedicated, hard working, and underpaid public servants who put their lives on the line on a daily basis to protect the rest of us. What happened in Tulia was unfortunate but the system ultimately exhonerated the innocent and excused many who were not. It is not a coincidence that many of these subjects have found themselves on the wrong side of the law yet again. I cannot help but chuckle at the self righteousness of those defendants who admitted they sold drugs--just not to Tom Coleman! And they expect sympathy from the law abiding citizens of Swisher County? Good grief! Heaven help us if we ever get to the point that a jury can't convict on the testimony of a single eye witness, especially if that witness is the victim. That victim could be you, me, our spouse, or one of our children.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

6:31, your point would be stronger if Tom Coleman hadn't committed perjury and helped put demonstrably innocent people in prison as well as the guilty. The fact that you (and many others) are willing to sweep that under the rug just because some of the defendants WERE guilty tells me we definitely need corroboration for undercovers in that circumstance.

If many in law enforcement hadn't rallied around Coleman for YEARS and insisted what he did was just fine, I'd be more sympathetic to your claim that requiring greater professionalism of them is a "slap in the face," but we simply know better now - they were just flat out wrong and corroboration WAS needed. (For that matter, if you're running a professional undercover operation, it's not difficult at all to obtain in such circumstances. Many agencies require it by policy.)

Don't ever look at Tulia and say "the system worked" - you don't know what it took to achieve that result and how many different times sheer luck intervened to get to the point where it was ultimately possible to prove Tom Coleman lied.

Finally, eyewitness testimony is often flawed, and when the witness didn't previously know the defendant is frequently subject to error. It makes perfect sense to require corroboration under those circumstances - look at all the DNA exonerations in eyewitness cases, including victim testimony. How can you say in the wake of those experiences that it should just be accepted as fact without question?

Anonymous said...

What about instances where the victim knows the perpetrator? For example, how much corroboration do you want in the case of Indecency With a Child by touching? What if there's a delayed outcry? Would you expect there to be another witness to the crime? Or physical evidence of abuse? I guess under your line of reasoning, Grits, a jury should never have the opportunity to believe or disbelieve the testimony of the child victim. Maybe under that circumstance we just let the suspect go free without any charges being filed so they can reoffend and actually sexually assault that child, or another child, and leave a little corroborating DNA.

Here again, it seems that you are all too willing to sacrifice victims as "collateral damage" in your ongoing campaign to obtain a level of certainty in criminal prosecutions that will never be obtained. How about a little consideration for those who are truly blameless?

Anonymous said...

I think it was Ronald Reagan who coined the clause, "Trust but verify." Tulia underscored the fact that we need to verify. The system did not work, in this instance. Justice was pryed from the system with a crowbar. If there hadn't been numbers of people willing to wield the crowbar, often sacrificing their own reputation for respectability--yours truly included--the Tulia thing would have sailed right under the radar. Corroboration is needed, and it is no insult to honest law enforcement officials. It is only a threat to the dishonest.

Charles Kiker from Tulia

Don said...

You are so right, Charles. And Grits. But you will never convince people who think like Anon: 6:31. It's incredible to me that some people maintain that getting a few innocents in the net is the price we must pay to be sure we get the guilty ones. Yet I have heard people say that very thing! And those who ignore science and statistics and the fact that eyewitness testimony is about the most unreliable of all. Then they look you in the eye and tell you "well, we've never killed an innocent person"! BS. Ask Tim Cole's family.

Hook Em Horns said...

Tim Cole is another dark day for Texas! Amazing one cares or only a few care.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"What about instances where the victim knows the perpetrator?"

What about them, 7:58? Nobody mentioned them but you. I only argued for requiring corroboration for victim testimony "when the witness didn't previously know the defendant." Obviously that distinction moots virtually everything you wrote, but apparently you missed the nuance.

I'd be happy to have a serious debate if you're able, but won't waste my time if you're just going to make up positions I never took and argue against them instead of reacting to what I wrote.

Besides, undercover drug stings are an entirely different animal from child molestation cases. The GAO more than a decade ago found they were the most common source of police corruption. Since then we've seen repeated problems (Tulia, Hearne, the Dallas sheetrock scandal, among many, many others) which IMO justifyt greater scrutiny of undercover drug stings than other types of day-to-day police work.

Atticus said...

Grits: Try telling those dozen or so who did 47 months each in TDC that the system "worked"...

Anonymous said...

I was present when John Cornyn gave Tom Coleman the "Officer of the Year" award at some law enforcement gathering. Surreal, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Did anyone pick up on the new office in Austin which will take the license plate letters/numbers as reported by drivers of individuals who "litter" as in throwing out trash.

The person whose plate is sent in will receive a letter admonishing them for their "crime" AND NO TELLING ADDING THEIR NAME TO A LIST OF NO-GOODERS. This smacks of bad business. Anyone with a grudge can make your life miserable. Where is the funding coming from to proceed with this Orwellian action and does anyone care? Maybe an article on this would be helpful. Thank you for all you do to protect our freedoms.
This basically is worse than one
eyewitness. Unbelievable.

Hook Em Horns said...

Anonymous said...

Did anyone pick up on the new office in Austin which will take the license plate letters/numbers as reported by drivers of individuals who "litter" as in throwing out trash.
Whose paying for this? Where did it come from? Jeez!