Round Two in Tulia

The Drug War is not a war on drugs, it’s a war on people,” G. Alan Robinson of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas told a small crowd assembled on the Capitol steps in Austin. If the sentiment on this hot September afternoon is any indication, the people are beginning to fight back – and Ground Zero of the struggle is a tiny town in the Texas Panhandle that is fast becoming a household name. The star attraction at the September 29 rally were the Tulia “war orphans”: roughly two dozen children of parents arrested in the now notorious 1999 cocaine bust in Tulia, Texas, a tiny panhandle ranching town near Amarillo.

The undercover operation resulted in the arrest of about three dozen African Americans, or over ten percent of the town’s small black population (see “The Color of Justice,” by Nate Blakeslee, June 23). Thus far, twenty-two of the defendants have gone to prison, some following trials and some as a result of plea bargains. Many are serving very long sentences, despite the relatively small amounts they were accused of selling. The kids they left behind appeared at the Capitol dressed in matching black T-shirts printed with the gold “Friends of Justice” logo adopted by local organizers. For many, it was their first trip out of the Panhandle. Some may not want to go back.

Still, there was cause for hope. Flanked by Tulians, Texas ACLU director Will Harrell announced the imminent filing of a lawsuit on behalf of the defendants. The suit, written by Amarillo attorney Jeff Blackburn, accuses the local sheriff and the district attorney of conspiring with undercover agent Tom Coleman to “deliberately and selectively target and prosecute” on the basis of race. The suit was initially filed on behalf of one defendant, Yul Bryant, who served seven months in jail before having his case dismissed by a judge. Bryant’s case, like virtually all of the cases in the sting, rested almost entirely on the testimony of undercover agent Tom Coleman. But Coleman’s physical description of Bryant in his report was nowhere near accurate, and the district attorney was forced to drop the charges, calling it a case of “mistaken identity.” Bryant’s was not the only case with significant inconsistencies. Blackburn said he expects other clients – some awaiting trial and some already convicted – to join the case in the coming months. The civil suit will allow what law enforcement officials in Tulia have feared all along, according to Blackburn: a wide-ranging deposition of undercover agent Tom Coleman, whose own past and motives have come under increasing scrutiny.

Led by a small group of black and white Tulians, supporters of the Tulia defendants have managed to catch the attention of the William Kuntsler Foundation, a New York City-based non-profit that works on criminal justice issues, which has provided funding and guidance to the group. Shortly after the rally in Austin, the organizing paid off. With the foundation’s help, Friends of Justice has generated national media attention for their cause, culminating in a feature story on CNN, a front-page story in The New York Times, and an upcoming spread in Time magazine (see editorial, page 3).

Meanwhile, back in Tulia, District Attorney Terry McEachern and company have obtained another conviction. Kareem Abdul Jabbar White went to trial at the Swisher County Courthouse on September 5. The evidence against him was the same as virtually every other case: Coleman’s testimony – in this case abetted by a state’s witness, Eliga Kelly – and a small baggie of powdered cocaine. And Coleman’s testimony (summarized in an unofficial transcript provided to the Observer) was just as fuzzy and contradictory as it has been in previous trials.

For example, the state’s only two material witnesses, Coleman and Eliga Kelly, cannot agree on who was present when the deal with White allegedly occurred. Kelly, who was Coleman’s unwitting contact to Tulia’s black community, alleged that he introduced the officer (Kelly did not know his identity at the time) to White, and that he was present in Coleman’s truck when White handed something – allegedly cocaine – to Coleman. But Coleman later testified that Kelly was not present when the deal occurred.

Under questioning by White’s attorney, Dwight McDonald, Coleman also had difficulty recalling the sequence of events on the day in question. Coleman claimed to have made the deal with White in Tulia at 10:30 in the morning on September 28, 1998. Asked where he was earlier that day, Coleman said he was in Amarillo, having a cup of coffee. He then drove to Tulia, made the deal with White, and then promptly returned to Amarillo. Coleman testified that he always returned to Amarillo after making a buy in Tulia, so that he could turn the drugs over to the evidence vault at the Amarillo Police Department, where the Panhandle Narcotics Task Force was headquartered, and make his report. He never made two buys in a row without first turning over the evidence from the first buy, he testified.

But as McDonald pointed out, Coleman had actually filed two reports alleging transactions with two different suspects on the same day, September 28, only about an hour apart. At the time he testified he was drinking coffee in Amarillo, about 9:30 AM, Coleman’s own report has him making a deal with a Willie B. Hall in Tulia. Assuming the report was correct (and not Coleman’s memory), how did he manage to drive the fifty miles to Amarillo, file the report, and drive back to make the deal with White, all in less than an hour? Pressed on the point, Coleman simply changed his story on the stand, as he has done several times, according to defense attorneys. (Coleman’s alleged perjury and conflicting testimony in the various trials will be one focus of the civil suit.)

White’s trial was significant in that it marked the first time defense attorneys were allowed to call witnesses concerning Coleman’s character and past reputation. McDonald brought out his star witnesses: two former investigators who served with Coleman in past law enforcement assignments, as well as Coleman’s previous boss, former Cochran County Sheriff Kenneth Burke.

It was Burke who had written a letter to the state agency that licenses peace officers concerning Coleman’s poor reputation in Cochran County, where he worked as a deputy sheriff from 1995 to 1996. Coleman left the job abruptly, in the middle of his shift, without returning his patrol car. The Sheriff later discovered that Coleman had left town owing thousands of dollars to area merchants, and was eventually moved to file charges on Coleman for theft. This warrant surfaced when Coleman was employed in Tulia, though he was not fired, but instead given time to “resolve” the situation.

Burke, along with the two investigators, testified that Coleman was untruthful. But District Attorney Terry McEachern brought in several law officers, including two Texas Rangers (friends of Coleman’s deceased father, a famous Ranger from West Texas), who testified to Coleman’s reliability and trustworthiness.

In the end, the result was the same. Although he was accused of one count of delivering only an eight-ball of cocaine (about $200 worth), the charge was enhanced because of a prior conviction. White got 60 years.

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Published at 12:00 am CST