Dateline Texas

Free at Last?
by Published on

Tom Coleman entered the courtroom on Thursday afternoon, March 13, wearing an Italian-style black leather jacket over a blue shirt and black tie. The war with Iraq had begun the night before, and Coleman wore a flag pin in his lapel. He appeared slightly more heavyset than he was the last time he was here, and had a new mustache and haircut—the sides shaved close like a Marine’s and the wavy red top grown out and slicked back. His gold watch and pinky ring flashed as he sat down in the witness chair and adjusted his tie.

Tulia’s black community had waited almost four years for this moment. It was the fourth day of evidentiary hearings ordered by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in the matter of the now-infamous undercover drug sting of 1999, the bust that made Tulia a household word across the country. Coleman’s uncorroborated testimony had led to 39 convictions, almost all of them from the tiny black community in this rural Panhandle town. Everything about the operation—the quality of Coleman’s testimony, the nature of the evidence, the sheer number of cases he claimed to have made—raised more red flags than the Russian Army, yet 13 people remained in prison.

This time around Coleman was on trial. Four of the men he had put away sat on his immediate left in street clothes, their legs discreetly shackled, staring down at him grimly from the jury box. By now most of the nation’s major news outlets had reported that Coleman had a reputation for dishonesty that extended to the very beginning of his law enforcement career. In the original trials, Coleman’s tendency to make cryptic and occasionally paranoid sidebar remarks had been kept in check by a coaching prosecutor and a sympathetic judge, Ed Self, who was forced to recuse himself for this hearing after making intemperate remarks about the controversy in a letter to the editor. In his place sat a visiting judge, Ron Chapman of Dallas. Coleman had never had to testify for more than an hour in the original trials. This time around he would be examined for at least a full day by what several defendants’ families had begun calling “the dream team”: 14 attorneys, most of them recruited from two major Washington, D.C., law firms, Hogan & Hartson and Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, to work on the cases pro bono. Mitch Zamoff, the Hogan & Hartson attorney who stood up to begin examining Coleman, is a former federal prosecutor.

The attorneys arrived in Amarillo the previous Sunday. By noon they began appearing in twos and threes in the seldom-used conference room of the Comfort Suites on I-40, where six long tables had been dragged into a ring and covered with dozens of thick black binders, lap-top computers, and piles of thick manila files. A junior associate struggled through the door with a laser printer he had just purchased.

In granting the hearings, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had given the trial court a very specific charge: to determine whether the prosecution had failed to turn over damaging information about Coleman to defense attorneys. The defense strategy was simple but labor intensive: they set out to catalogue not only everything the state knew about Coleman (and when they knew it) but also everything the state should have known. The team had been organized by Amarillo attorney Jeff Blackburn, well known in the Panhandle for his civil rights work, and Vanita Gupta of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York. The team had spent months tracking down and deposing witnesses, parsing trial transcripts and police reports, and planning strategy in weekly conference calls. A victory would mean, at a minimum, new trials for the four defendants—Joe Moore, Fred Brookins, Jr., Jason Moore, and Chris Jackson—represented in this hearing. Defeat would mean a major setback for all 13 defendants still in prison.

On Monday morning, about 100 members of Tulia’s black community quietly filled a dozen rows of hard-backed pews on one side of the second-floor courtroom of the Swisher County Courthouse. They seemed to leave the seats across the aisle empty for the town’s other community. But by the time former Pecos County Sheriff Bruce Wilson took the stand mid-morning, it was apparent that very few white Tulians would be attending the hearings. Wilson and the supporting cast of Coleman’s former associates were supposed to be warm-up witnesses, setting the stage for the main characters later in the week: Larry Stewart, the Swisher County sheriff who hired Coleman, Terry McEachern, the District Attorney, and Coleman himself. As it happened, Wilson reluctantly became one of the defense team’s most compelling witnesses.

About six feet tall and slim, with thinning silver-gray hair, high cheekbones, and a long, narrow face, Wilson wore a gray, western style blazer, a blue tie, and crisp new blue jeans. With his lips pressed together in a thin frown, he listened carefully to each question from attorney Desmond Hogan. Wilson, who is in his early 60s, retired in 2000 after 16 years as sheriff. He hired Tom as a deputy in 1989, he said, because he was the son of his friend Joe Coleman, the well-known and widely respected Texas Ranger. The senior Coleman died in 1991.

“What was Joe Coleman’s reputation as an officer?” Hogan asked. At the mention of the memory of Coleman’s father, Wilson inhaled deeply and blinked a few times. His ambivalence about what he was about to do was obvious. “One of the best,” he answered after a pause. Was he trustworthy? “Whatever he told you, you could bank on.”

The entire courtroom knew what was coming next. Was Tom Coleman a good officer, Hogan asked? Wilson looked down at his hands. “No.” Was he trustworthy? A full minute passed in utter silence as Wilson, clearly still thinking about Joe Coleman, struggled to compose himself. “I don’t know how to say it. I didn’t trust him,” he finally said. Once that line had been crossed, he began volunteering stories about Tom that even the defense team had never heard. How the deputy had denied threatening two women in the tiny town of Iraan where he was stationed, only to have a humiliating tape recording of the incident played before him in the sheriff’s office. How a woman had taken to lying down in the back seat of her son’s car to see if Coleman really was pulling her son over several times a day, as the boy had complained. How the citizens of Iraan had convened a town hall meeting, attended by over 100 persons, on the subject of getting Deputy Tom Coleman out of their town. When Wilson finally stepped down, after a perfunctory cross-examination by Terry McEachern’s assistant D.A., the courtroom buzzed the way courtrooms do on TV dramas, and even the judge seemed slightly stunned by what Wilson had said.

Then former law enforcement colleagues of Coleman’s testified that his behavior was erratic, that he was racist, that he was paranoid, that they were afraid to be around him. On Tuesday, it was on to Coleman’s creditors, mostly from the small Panhandle town of Morton, where Coleman had run up thousands of dollars in debt before abruptly leaving town. On Wednesday, the team went through a methodical examination of Coleman’s commanders at the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force. The task force used federal grant money to hire Coleman for the undercover job in Swisher County, a position that Sheriff Larry Stewart had been angling to fill for some time. A document recovered by the defense team during discovery—Sergeant Jerry Massengill’s handwritten notes from a background check on Coleman—suggested that his bosses knew much more than they had previously admitted about his past. According to the notes, previous employers and past associates told Massengill that Coleman “was too gung ho,” “needed constant supervision,” was not paying his bills, was a discipline problem, and had “possible mental problems.” When pressed, both Massengill and his boss, Lieutenant Mike Amos, suggested that the final decision to hire Coleman had been Sheriff Larry Stewart’s.

As it happened, Stewart was next on the witness list. Stewart had stood by Coleman and the operation, even after Coleman had been thoroughly discredited. And the white community, in turn, had stood by Stewart. “Larry Stewart is a Christian man,” is an expression often heard in discussions of the controversy that has roiled this town for the last four years. Stewart, 60, is a deacon at the Church of Christ in Tulia. He smiles often and prides himself on his civility and gentle manner. He is tall and cowboy-thin, with long jowls and sunken eyes that give his face a friendly hound dog affect.

Zamoff began by showing him a portion of a trial transcript in which the sheriff testified that Massengill had not shared anything “negative” with him about Coleman’s background. Con-fronted with the information in Massengill’s notes, Stewart insisted that he could not recall having heard any of those statements during the hiring process. Would he at least agree that “needs constant supervision,” for example, was a negative comment? “Not necessarily,” Stewart contended. After five minutes of questioning, Zamoff got Stewart to concede that “needs constant supervision” was a negative quality for an undercover officer assigned to work by himself for months at a time.

Stewart had more difficulty explaining the circumstances surrounding Cole-man’s arrest in Swisher County in August of 1998, about five months after the undercover operation began in earnest. The sheriff of Cochran County, where Coleman had worked as a deputy until 1996, had filed a theft charge on Coleman for stealing county gas for personal use. Cochran County was also after Coleman to repay almost $7,000 in debts he had left behind in Morton. When Stewart discovered the charge that August, he had to arrest Coleman himself, which he did in the quietest manner possible. (And, the defense team convincingly demonstrated, in a manner calculated to leave no record.) Stewart had a decision to make: fire Coleman and forfeit all of the time and money invested in the operation, or allow Coleman to “resolve” the issue. Theft, Zamoff pointed out, is a crime of dishonesty, and a good sheriff wouldn’t prosecute cases made by a dishonest officer. Stewart agreed that he would not. He also would not allow Coleman to make cases with a charge pending. In the end Coleman took a week’s vacation, during which he was allowed to pay restitution for both the gas and the debts; the Cochran County case was dismissed. Stewart was satisfied, he said, that Cole-man had not done anything dishonest.

But Coleman had in fact lied to Stewart, Zamoff insisted. Coleman had acted surprised, Stewart testified, when told of the arrest warrant in August of 1998. In fact, Coleman had signed a waiver of arraignment form acknowledging the charges the previous May. Wasn’t that dishonest, to not tell his superiors about a criminal charge, and then act surprised when confronted with it? As the four shackled defendants watched from their seats in the jury box, Stewart struggled to recount Coleman’s recent explanation for the discrepancy—that he had signed a blank waiver of arraignment because he feared that charges might soon be filed. Coleman did not know for certain that there would be charges filed when he signed the waiver, so he had not, technically speaking, lied to Stewart. “Do you find that plausible?” Zamoff demanded. The sheriff was clearly exhausted, but Zamoff would not let it go. “It’s a little bit hard to believe,” Stewart finally admitted.

Tom Coleman kept it together for three-and-a-half hours Thursday afternoon, long enough to reach the end of the day. Most of his past employment troubles he blamed on a vindictive ex-wife and dishonest colleagues. Everyone, it seemed, was out to get him, but he was not ashamed of his record. His responses were occasionally bizarre, as when he told Zamoff that he was “pretty sure” everyone he put behind bars was guilty, or when he recalled his response to being told he got the job in Swisher County. “Did you do the background check?” he had asked.

Friday morning, however, things began to deteriorate. Zamoff confronted Coleman with the waiver of arraignment he had shown Stewart the day before. As expected, Coleman insisted that the waiver had been blank when he signed it, and that he had not known about the charges in Cochran County until Stewart informed him on August 8. He had signed the waiver because he thought trouble might be coming, and it would save his lawyer from having to find him in Tulia. But Coleman admitted he had known since at least 1997 that Cochran County was accusing him of stealing gas, because his former boss had given him a bad reference on a job application that year. Why hadn’t he signed a waiver then? Cochran County authorities waited until May of 1998, almost two years after the incident, to file the charges against Coleman. Was it just a coincidence that Coleman had hired a lawyer and signed a waiver that same month? It was, Coleman testified.

Coleman further testified that his attorney, Garry Smith, never contacted him about the charges once they had been filed, nor did Coleman ever try to contact Smith. Zamoff produced a letter from Smith to Coleman dated July 20, 1998, in which the bond for Coleman’s case is discussed. Coleman said that the letter went to his mother’s house in Midland, and that he was not in touch with her at the time. Zamoff pointed out that in the letter Smith asked Coleman to call him. “But you never did that because you never got this letter; is that right,” he asked? “Correct,” Coleman replied.

Zamoff then directed Coleman to turn to Exhibit 28. It was a phone message from Garry Smith’s office, dated July 23, three days after the letter was sent. It read: “Tom Coleman called.” Coleman had perjured himself with the whole world watching.

Coleman became increasingly petulant as Zamoff moved through other instances of apparent perjury from previous trials. With Coleman on the ropes, he dropped another bombshell. The state narcotics lab had tested Coleman’s evidence to determine whether or not it was cocaine, but had never tested the purity of the drugs. Cocaine is normally cut to 60 to 75 percent purity for sale on the street. When a selection of samples was tested by defense lawyers late last year, they turned out to be suspiciously weak, with some as low as one or two percent purity. Confronted with these results, Coleman refused to concede that there was anything unusual about the cocaine he bought. “No, it’s about the way it is. It’s what you buy,” he claimed.

Just before lunch, Zamoff turned to Coleman’s use of the word “nigger.” He read a portion of a BBC interview transcript in which Coleman denied using the word. Coleman now admitted that was untrue, and said he used the word with his friends and family. There followed this exchange:

Q: Oh, so you have used it with your friends and family?

A: Yes, Sir.

Q: Okay.

A: It’s kind of a — go ahead.

Q: I’m sorry. What were you going to say?

A: Nothing.

Q: No, please finish your answer. It’s kind of what?

A: It’s kind of a greeting.

Q: It’s kind of a greeti
g between you and your family and f
iends?

A: No, it’s just a greeting.

Q: It’s like a greeting? You use it— I mean pretend I’m your family member and tell me how you use it.

Coleman hesitated, and then said, “I would have—my friends would come over and they knock on the door and I open the door, and they say”—at this he made an expansive gesture and bugged his eyes out slightly, raising his voice—”What’s up, nigger?”

The courtroom exploded in incredulous laughter. The judge looked at the ceiling. Coleman went on to testify that he did not consider the word to be a term of racial prejudice “in this day and time.” Shortly afterward the hearing recessed for lunch, and the halls of the courthouse echoed with excited conversation and hilarity.

The fallout in Tulia began even before the hearings ended. During the week-long break in the hearings, the Swisher County Commissioner’s Court voted to ask the legislature for permission to hire their own district attorney, rather than continue to share Terry McEachern with neighboring Hale County. The commissioners insisted it was purely a budgetary decision and had nothing to do with the Coleman scandal. McEachern was also fighting a DWI charge during the hearings, a fact that became widely known after the settlement was announced. Smelling blood in the water, both the Lubbock and the Amarillo local TV news ran stories on the charge, even though the arrest happened last fall. Both stations showed a police video of McEachern failing a field sobriety test on the side of the highway in New Mexico.

Coleman was nowhere to be found the day the settlement was announced. There has been widespread speculation that perjury charges are forthcoming, though nothing formal has been announced. The FBI has reportedly shown interest in the case again, after allowing their investigation to languish for years. To save face, one theory goes, the Department of Justice may try to beat the state to the punch with its own perjury indictment.

Despite his humiliating performance on the witness stand, Sheriff Stewart will likely survive the imbroglio. A local advocate for the defenders, an older white minister, poked his head in Stewart’s office just after the settlement was announced. “Are you going to resign now?” he asked. “You take a hike,” Stewart said.

Nate Blakeslee is a former Observer editor.