June 18, 2003
Tough times for Tulians

Now that 12 of the 14 remaining Tulia defendants have been released on bond, the other residents of the town are trying to deal with the town's negative image.

"It seems to me our community has gotten a pretty bum rap," said the Rev. Charles Davenport, pastor of the First Baptist Church.

He's lived here 29 years and is trying to figure out how a town few outside of West Texas had heard of until the pre-dawn moments of a fateful summer morning four years ago became an icon of racial bigotry.

Many here believe Tulia, like Jasper, got blamed for something it didn't do and are confounded by demands that it "repent" and mend its evil ways.


"It almost appears to some of us that the media has said that at some point the people here got together and said we want to send black people to jail," Davenport said. "This community didn't invite that sting. No one in this community knew it was going on until the arrests were made."

Davenport said he has seen little evidence of the kind of racial division that has been sketched in many news stories.

On Tuesday, he had lunch with a black minister to talk about the "healing process."

"We never came to a conclusion," he said, suggesting that neither knew where to begin in soothing a non-existent wound.

"The folks in our community would welcome suggestions," Davenport said. "What do they expect us to do."

The town's critics have pointed out that it wasn't just the ill-executed sting, but the harsh sentences meted out by local juries that reeked of racist injustice.

But Davenport, among others, pointed out that many of those seated to judge the defendants were not legal sophisticates.

"They had nothing to go on except what was presented to them by law enforcement and the district attorney, people they believed and trusted," he said.

I do think there's something to what the Rev. Davenport is saying. While it's fair to question the motives of the jurors who believed Tom Coleman despite a lack of corroborating evidence and in some cases the existence of exculpatory evidence, most of them are probably not guilty of anything more severe than excessive deference to authority. Primary blame for this fiasco attaches to Coleman, the sherriff (Larry Stewart) who hired him, the District Attorney (Terry McEachern) who prosecuted the cases despite knowing about Tom Coleman's history and not disclosing it to defense attorneys, and the judge (Edward Self) who presided over the cases and had to be removed from the appeals process because he sided with the prosecution. Whatever else you may think of the town of Tulia, these four people deserve the vast majority of your anger and scorn.

And let's not forget that Tulia is hardly an isolated case. Don't go telling me that somehow the "system" worked because these folks eventually got their freedom back. They're only free because of the tireless pro-bono work of their attorney, Jeff Blackburn, the media attention that reporter Nate Blakeslee and eventually NYT columnist Bob Herbert brough to the case, and a bill that was rushed through both state legislative chambers because two years could pass before the Court of Criminal Appeals hears the case. The system is broken, which is why these people were arrested and convicted in the first place and why heaven and earth needed to be moved to get them out. How many others, in Texas and elsewhere, are rotting in jail or sitting on Death Row because they don't have the same kind of attention paid to their cases?

I hope Tulia helps to shine a big bright spotlight on our criminal justice system and the so-called "War on Drugs" that has so thoroughly perverted it. Then and only then will I accept that some justice has been done here.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on June 18, 2003 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack

This is one of the best pieces of commentary I have read on this site. While I don't think the system of justice in the United States is broken, however, I do see it constantly evolving. The key to this issue is not the juries that were involved in hearing the case, but the individuals that made the so-called "buy and busts", and those that prosecuted the cases. Most juries have the belief that a police officer is typically believable in his/her testimony during a trial. While this is typically true, there are situations like these that "fall through the cracks", much the same way as any witness can lie under oath.

I certainly agree that there are improper convictions, especially since there appears to be a release of a prisoner every week in New York State due to DNA evidence, a witness recanting his/her story, and/or someone else confessing to the crime. I also support the death penalty, however, but I do think it is used too often. Only the worst offenses and the most obvious convictions should qualify for this sentence.

With regards to the "War on Drugs", I can only say that while drugs are a scourge on society, the New York State "Rockerfeller Laws" are in dire need of change. Most people sentenced to the 25 year mandated sentence for possession are either users in need of treatment, or people in the wrong place at the wrong time. While Governor Pataki has supported changing the laws, it is too important for the upstate legislators to keep things the way they are, since the prisons are often the largest employer in their area.

Some changes do need to be made, but they will only occur if everyone is on the same page.

Posted by: William Hughes on June 18, 2003 8:49 AM

Thanks for the link to this page

Posted by: James on November 3, 2004 10:30 PM