DATELINE TEXAS A Trial in Tulia One Man’s Four-Year Ordeal with Swisher County Justice BY LILIANA IBARA “After nine years there’s not a lot q f physical evidence. It’s pretty much all circumstantial. But in Texas you can get a conviction on circumstantial evidence.” -Texas Ranger Aaron Dewayne Williams, quoted in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal,June 9, 1998 “We already know they’re deciding one way or the other to convict you or me of it . . . and the main reason I think it’s me is because I’m a black man . . .But I know I didn’t kill Tony . .. I loved him as much as I love my daughter . . . I feel guilty because I wasn’t back in time enough to save him . . . but I wasn’t the reason for his death.” David Johnson, speaking to Ronda Fore, as recorded by Ranger Williams, September 21, 1998 F ollowing the now-infamous drug bust of 1999, the name Tulia has become synonymous with drug war misconduct. More than 10 percent of the tiny Panhandle town’s black population was arrested for allegedly selling cocaine to an undercover cop, who was later revealed to have a questionable record himself. The arrests did not hold up under scrutiny, though the local district attorney,Terry McEachern, continues to stand by the convictions he obtained in more than two-dozen cases. Thanks to widespread coverage in the national news media, the plight of those arrested in the sting is now known to thousands across the country and an organized effort is underway to free the 13 defendants still in prison. Less well known is another Tulia drama that unfolded just as the drug sting cases were being prosecuted: the case of David Earl Johnson. Johnson was paroled earlier this month after serving almost four and one half years for manslaughter. If anything, Johnson’s case is even more confounding than the cocaine sting that caught the national media’s attention. In. June of 1998, Johnson was arrested and charged in the 1989 death of Anthony Culifer, the infant son of Johnson’s former girlfriend. Because Johnson could not make his $500,000 bail, he was forced to wait in jail for nearly two years, while District Attorney Terry McEachern plowed through the Tulia drug cases. How McEachern obtained an indictment, let alone a conviction, for a death that occurred nine years previouslyand was pronounced death by pneu monia at the timereads like a bad tabloid tale. The principal witness for the prosecution, the child’s mother, claimed to have remembered in a dream years after her son’s death that she had seen Johnson kill her baby. Anthony’s older sister also testified against Johnson, claiming to have witnessed the crime as well. She was two years old at the time. The authorities had Anthony’s body exhumed, although they knew the baby had not been embalmed. Not surprisingly, they found no tissue to examinebut they did manage to persuade a Florida pathologist to come to Tulia and testify that Anthony might have been smothered. When the trial was over, barely a week after it had begun, the jury gave Johnson the maximum sentence for involuntary manslaughter: 10 years in prison. Johnson grew up in Tulia, the first son ofThelma and David Johnson, Sr. David’s father left the fan -lily when he was seven. Thelma’s own parents were migrant cotton pickers who died when she was young, leaving Thelma in the care of siblings who brought her to Tulia. She met and married David’s father in Tulia while she was still in her teens. Thelma settled in Tulia and did her best to take care of her two boys, working as a cook and a waitress at local restaurants. David enlisted in the army reserves in tenth grade. After graduating from high school, he worked as a mechanic. He had a daughter, Sheena, with a girlfriend, though the relationship did not work out. When it became apparent that Sheena’s mother could not care for her, David fought for and won custody of his daughter, whom he raised with Thelma’s help. Now 16 years old, Sheena stayed with Thelma while David was in prison. Johnson met Ronda Fore through mutual friends in the late 1980s. She was working odd jobs, but with three small children she wasn’t making enough to live on. She told Johnson that she was living in her car with her kids, and he let her move in with him.Their relationship was rocky. Often Ronda would go to the police after a fight and accuse David of abusing her and her children, though he was never prosecuted for any of the complaints. Ronda herself was repeatedly investigated by Child Protective Services, and at one point temporarily lost custody of her children. On March 20, 1989 Johnson and Fore brought Anthony to the emergency room in Tulia. Anthony was not breathing when they arrived, and he could not be revived. Dr. Ralph Erdmann, the medical examiner for much of the Panhandle, 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 10/25/02
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