Twin Tragedy in Tulia
A modicum of justice has alighted upon the Panhandle town of Tulia. Tom Coleman, the itinerant lawman who made narcotics cases on 15 percent of the town’s black population in 1999 as part of a regional narcotics task force sting, is facing three counts of aggravated perjury. He is scheduled to go on trial on May 24. The district attorney who prosecuted the cases, Terry McEachern, has been voted out of office and sanctioned by the Texas Bar Association. The City of Amarillo has agreed to pay a $5 million settlement to the Tulia victims. The task force will be disbanded at the end of May. And the case, which garnered worldwide attention, has inspired plans for a made-for-television movie and a Hollywood film starring Halle Berry.
In the midst of all this good news, it’s easy to forget about Landis and Mandis Barrow. The Barrow brothers will receive generous compensation checks like other Tulia defendants, but there isn’t much to buy in a prison commissary. The tidal wave of exoneration sweeping over tiny Tulia, Texas hasn’t reached the Terrell Unit in New Boston where Landis Barrow is incarcerated or the Gib Lewis Unit in Woodville where Mandis is locked up.
Tom Coleman’s charges against the Barrow twins were riddled with problems. Fortunately for the state, Landis and Mandis Barrow had been charged with robbery in 1996. Swearing they were innocent, the twins were initially inclined to fight the charges in court. Then an Amarillo prosecutor offered to put them back on the streets if they agreed to 10-year probated sentences. Fresh out of high school and desperate for freedom, Landis and Mandis took the deal. Little did they know that two years later their parole would be revoked based on testimony by Tom Coleman.
Mandis Barrow’s probation revocation hearing was just one of several causes on the docket in the Amarillo courtroom on May 12, 2000, and the spectators’ gallery was crowded with defense attorneys and their nervous clients. Even jaded courtroom veterans were shocked by the testimony lawman-for-hire Tom Coleman delivered that day.
During a hearing in Swisher County a month earlier, Coleman told the court he had signed a waiver of arraignment in May of 1998 after learning that he had been indicted on theft charges in nearby Cochran County. The charges against Coleman were dropped on August 17 after he agreed to reimburse Cochran County merchants for almost $7,000 in bad debts. Although Coleman should have been suspended from active duty between late May and mid-August of 1998 he had made 19 cases during this period, including a June 23 case filed on Mandis Barrow.
Dallas Attorney John Read told Amarillo’s NBC affiliate that Tom Coleman “isn’t smart enough to lie.” Read should have said that his celebrity client isn’t smart enough to lie consistently. At Mandis Barrow’s hearing, the undercover agent simply withdrew the allegation that he had purchased drugs from Barrow on June 23, 1998. No harm done—Coleman had filed another case against Mandis on September 3 of that year.
But the complications just kept coming. Landis and Mandis Barrow are identical twins—neither their mother Anita nor Tom Coleman can tell them apart. All Coleman claimed to know for sure was that one twin set up the drug deal and the other twin handed him the dope. He resolved the identification problem by filing a case on both men. A case this shaky might not stand up in court, but it was more than enough to revoke the twins’ probation. Judges can revoke for being late for a meeting with a probation officer if they choose, but a revocation hearing is usually sparked by a breach of the law. It didn’t matter if Mandis set up a drug deal or made the hand-to-hand transfer—either would be enough to send him to prison for 20 years.
Then Walt Weaver, the twins’ defense attorney, began to question the lawman. If Coleman wasn’t sure if Mandis had set up the deal or handed over the drugs maybe he didn’t do either. Coleman thought it over, then suggested that Eliga Kelly, the middle-aged black man who had introduced him to Tulia’s black community, told him which twin did what.
Weaver pointed out that Eliga Kelly wasn’t in the courtroom, and then asked Tom Coleman when he first knew that theft charges had been filed against him in Cochran County. The narcotics agent had little choice but to repeat his earlier testimony that word had reached him in May of 1998.
Then Judge Don Emerson asked where Weaver was going with this line of questioning and the defense attorney was forced to tip his hand. If Coleman knew about the Cochran County charges in May, Weaver told the judge, there were only two possibilities: The June 23 case was fabricated or Coleman had committed a felony by buying drugs while under suspension.
Judge Emerson didn’t see that it mattered. Even if Coleman had broken the law by buying, Mandis had committed a felony by selling. Nonetheless, Weaver was told to proceed. By that point, Tom Coleman had learned enough to change his story. He hadn’t known about the theft charges until August 17, he now insisted. Besides, the undercover agent alleged, “these charges stem from a vindictive sheriff’s office because of some of the things that I knew that was going on there.”
Judge Emerson nodded patiently as officer Coleman entangled himself in a bizarre web of deception. Coleman said he bought drugs from Mandis Barrow on June 23, then remembered it never happened. Coleman testified he had no idea which of the Barrow twins sold him the dope on September 3, then remembered that Eliga Kelly had cleared up his identification problem. Coleman said he had been suspended from active duty in May of 1998, then remembered that the suspension didn’t go into effect until August. Finally, the Texas Law Officer of the Year alleged a criminal conspiracy hatched by a vindictive sheriff. Judge Don Emerson must have been convinced by Coleman’s grotesque performance because he ruled for the state and sentenced Mandis Barrow to 20 years in prison.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the judge’s decision. The June 23 indictment had obviously been “mistakenly filed” but “an honest mistake does not rise to the level of perjury,” the court declared. Coleman may not have been able to distinguish Landis from Mandis, but it was conceivable that Eliga Kelly “had identified which twin passed the controlled substance to Coleman.” Finally, the Appeals Court argued, if Judge Emerson was convinced by Coleman’s testimony, no perjury had been committed by definition.
Eliga Kelly was horrified when he got the news about Mandis, but it was too late. In a notarized statement, Kelly described the ill-fated meeting between Tom Coleman and the Barrow twins. “Mandis asked me why was I still riding around with that police,” Kelly reported. Coleman walked up “and asked me were those the twins? I told him yes and he asked Mandis where could he get some smoke? Mandis told him that he didn’t sell dope and he didn’t know where to get any and furthermore don’t ever approach him about any dope. Then the twins drove off very mad.”
Walt Weaver told Mandis that Kelly’s statement couldn’t be used on appeal because it didn’t appear in the transcript of the hearing. Every month I get another letter from the Barrow twins. Whether the letter is from Mandis or Landis the poignant signature is always the same: Twin.
Last year Dallas Judge Ron Chapman heard essentially the same testimony Coleman delivered in May of 2000 and called it perjury. In fact, the judge declared Coleman “the most devious, non-responsive law enforcement witness” he had encountered in 25 years on the bench. The findings of fact released after the Chapman hearings cited Tom Coleman’s testimony at Mandis Barrow’s hearing as a prime example of “Coleman’s perjured and misleading statements.”
When Judge Don Emerson listened to Coleman’s lies in the spring of 2000, the Coleman sting hadn’t produced a regional headline for eight months. Two springs later, during the Chapman hearings, “Tulia” was a national story and a reporter for The New York Times was scribbling ominously in the front row of the spectators’ gallery. Judge Chapman had ample reason to pay attention.
“The horrible thing about all legal officials,” G.K. Chesterton wrote almost a century ago, “is simply that they get used to it. Strictly they do not see the prisoner in the dock; all they see is the usual man in the usual place.” Mandis Barrow was the usual man in the usual place—so was Tom Coleman. It was Coleman’s job to provide a legal pretext for a routine conviction.
The perjured testimony that doomed the Barrow twins may well place Tom Coleman behind bars. But even if Coleman is convicted he’ll be back in the free world long before Landis and Mandis are released. The recent settlement will make the Barrow twins wealthy men—at least by the modest standards of cash-strapped Tulia. But the story won’t have a triumphant Hollywood ending until Landis and Mandis have somewhere other than a prison commissary to spend their hard-earned money.
Alan Bean is Executive Director of Friends of Justice, a Tulia-based criminal justice reform organization and is currently writing a book about Tulia and the Coleman drug sting.