Page 15


AFTERWORD I BY ALAN BEAN A Letter from Tulia Ilim ast month, Tom Coleman, the former undercover narcotics agent whose uncorroborated testimony was responsible for the 1999 drug sting that snared 15 percent of the black population of Tulia, went on trial for perjury in the Lubbock County courthouse. Court officials feared that they would have to ration seats to accommodate an overflow crowd. Less than two years ago, reporters from all over the country descended on Tulia to watch people whom Coleman had helped put behind bars relish their newfound freedom. Cameras zoomed in as Kizzie White embraced the young children she hadn’t been able to touch for almost four years. Joe Moore, an aging hog farmer, said he was looking forward to eating his first decent plate of barbecue since police officers pulled him out of his truck on the morning of July 23, 1999, and slapped handcuffs on his wrists. This time around, the courtroom was relatively empty. On January 18, there were just four reporters and three spectators on hand for a hearing in Tulia in which Judge David Gleason sentenced Coleman to 10 years’ probation and a $7,500 fine. When it was all over, Cole man and his attorney tried to slip out a side door. A lone camera crew clattered down the hall in pursuit of one last sound bite from the man who had made Tulia famous. With Coleman’s quote in the can, the camera was turned on me, and I was asked the same question I have been answering for the past two years: Would Tulia be able “to heal” now that the Coleman case was resolved? The question was far more complicated than the young reporters from Lubbock and Amarillo could possibly have imagined. In 1998 I moved to Tulia from Derby, Kansas. Nancy, my wife, felt a strong need to be reconnected with her roots and her parents were going to be retiring here. I didn’t have a hometown. After the death of my parents in the 1990s there was little reason to return to my childhood home of Edmonton, Canada. By default, Tulia became my hometown. My first reaction to the arrests was to check the list for familiar names. If I had understood what Tulia’s big drug sting was all about, I wouldn’t have worried. Nobody in our circle of acquaintances was on the target list. What got me really angry was an editorial in the Tulia Sentinel praising the sheriff and the district attorney for rounding up the “scumbags.” At the time I believed all the pious bromides about people being presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. I’ve come to realize that’s mostly a feel-good mantra that applies to some people but not others. About two weeks after the big drug bust, I voiced my concerns during a Sunday school discussion. “Scumbags are exactly what they are,” a flushed gentlemen responded. “They’re all guilty and they’re all going to jail.” Six months later this same gentleman served as jury foreman in one of Tulia’s drug trials. From day one, my mother-in-law, Patricia Kiker, was asking the right question, “How could you have 46 drug dealers in a town the size of Tulia?” And then Joe Moore was handed a 90-year sentence in December of 1999. I think even Terry McEachern, the district attorney, was shocked. The sentence was a hate crime. People hated Joe. Not Joe personally, they hated what they thought he representeda black guy skulking around behind the high school peddling poison to their kids. Joe’s history encouraged this kind of morbid speculation. For decades Joe had been one of dry Swisher County’s high-profile bootleggers and had served time for a couple of two-bit drug charges in the early ’90s. In small Texas townswhen the charge is drugs and the defendant is poor and black, evidence is optional. Young black men, fresh out of high school, get picked up for assault or drug possession and accept a plea bargain for five years’ probation just to get back on the streets. Those who fight a charge in court are convicted unless they can prove their innocence. On the streets, probation is called “paper prison!’ Once you have a felony conviction on your record the slightest infraction of the With Coleman’s quote in the can, the camera was turned on me, and I was asked the same question I have been answering for the past two years: Would Tulia be able “to heal” now that the Coleman case was resolved? FEBRUARY 18, 2005 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 29