DATELINE TEXAS Free at Last? A sensational hearing in Tulia leads to a tentative settlement BY NATE BLAKESLEE 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 haircutthe 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 operationthe quality of Coleman’s testimony, the nature of the evidence, the sheer number of cases he claimed to have maderaised 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 begin ning 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 con ference room of the Comfort Suites on 1-40, 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 attor neys. The defense strategy was simple but labor intensive: they set out to catalogue not only everything the state knew about Coleman \(and when they 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 defendantsJoe Moore, Fred Brookins, Jr., Jason Moore, and Chris Jacksonrepresented 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 hardbacked pews on one side of the secondfloor 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 midmorning, 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 10 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 4/25/03
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