June 16, 2003
Tulia 13 to be released today

This is the best news you'll read today:

TULIA -- Forty months older and $70,000 poorer, Amarillo attorney Jeff Blackburn will stand in a courtroom here today and, at last, watch his pro bono beneficiaries -- 13 people imprisoned on questionable drug charges -- set free.

"There were plenty of times when I thought this day was never going to come," Blackburn said. "We fought a losing battle for two years. The only say we had was in the press."

At a hearing at 1 p.m. today, retired state District Judge Ron Chapman of Dallas is expected to release the defendants without bond until their cases are resolved by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.


The written record of the Tulia saga is packed with investigative abuse, prosecutorial obstruction, judicial inertia and no small dose of irony:

Tom Coleman, the undercover officer whose uncorroborated testimony was the sole basis for dozens of convictions, has been discredited and is under indictment for perjury.

Terry McEachern, who prosecuted the Tulia defendants and failed to disclose to their lawyers information about Coleman's troubled past -- Coleman was arrested for theft while conducting the sting operation -- was recently convicted of aggravated drunken driving in New Mexico and faces an uncertain political and professional future.

Judge Edward Self, who presided over many of the cases, was forced to recuse himself after he expressed public support for the prosecutors after the trials.


One defendant proved she was in another state at the time Coleman alleged she sold him dope. Another was acquitted when his boss testified that he was at work when the alleged transaction took place (he later sued the county and settled for $30,000).

Despite the obvious flaws in the cases, Blackburn said, "our hands were tied at the appellate level."

"We were never able to effect anything meaningful," he said. "We had to go outside, to the press. I'm glad that we had the allies that we did. It would have been swept under the rug."

For the prosecutors, Blackburn said, Self's recusal and Chapman's appointment to hold the evidentiary hearings were "their Stalingrad."

Coleman is accused of lying during two days on the witness stand, and before the hearings were concluded, the prosecutors threw in the towel. They stipulated that Coleman was not credible and agreed that new trials should be granted.

However, the Court of Criminal Appeals did not respond to Chapman's recommendation.

This is a great achievement, and as far as I'm concerned, Jeff Blackburn is a hero. Keep in mind, though, that he couldn't have done this without publicity. How many other people are in jail unjustly because they don't have lawyers as tireless, resourceful, and good at getting the word out as Jeff Blackburn?

"Claims of actual innocence based on newly discovered evidence have never been held to state a ground for federal habeas relief absent an independent constitutional violation occurring in the course of the underlying state criminal proceedings."

That's Tony Scalia's idea of justice. As long as that attitude prevails, there will always be Tulias.

UPDATE: As Daniel Levin points out in the comments, the above quote comes from William Rehnquist's majority opinion in Herrera v. Collins and not from Antonin Scalia's concurring opinion. My bad.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on June 16, 2003 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack

Scalia would agree with the quoted portion of Herrara v. Collins. However, if you search his concurrence you will not find the quote. The quote appears in the majority opinion by Rehnquist.

Posted by: Daniel Levin on June 16, 2003 1:05 PM

I have read in every story on this that the 12 had to post bond to be released but nowhere have I read how much bond they had to post - any information?

Posted by: darms on June 18, 2003 11:27 AM

Darms - they were released on their own recognizance, so no bond had tro be put up.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on June 18, 2003 1:03 PM