March 11, 2004
Settlement in Tulia civil suit

All of the still-living Tulia drug bust defendants will share in a $5 million settlement of a civil suit against the city of Amarillo. Amarillo also agreed to disband the multi-agency task force that oversaw Tom Coleman, the lying undercover cop whose uncorroborated testimony was enough to put nearly all of the accused in jail.

"There's no amount of money that could ever compensate the people in Tulia," said attorney Jeff Blackburn at a news conference announcing the settlement. "In our view this was a whole systemic failure."

The agreement with the city of Amarillo disbands the multi-agency task force that oversaw the sting's undercover agent, Tom Coleman, who is white, Blackburn said.

"The law on who is responsible for the task force is very unsettled and the city could not risk a $30-, $50- or $100- million dollar judgment," said Marcus Norris, Amarillo's city attorney.

On July 23, 1999, 44 people -- 37 of whom are black -- were arrested in the busts, which civil rights groups claimed were racially motivated. Coleman worked alone for 18 months and used no audio or video surveillance. Little or no corroborating evidence was introduced during the trials.

Though the settlement involves a civil rights lawsuit filed last summer by Zuri Bossett and Tonya White, two women whose drug charges were dropped after they provided alibis, all but one of the 46 arrested will receive some portion of the settlement. One defendant died before going to trial and is not included in the settlement, Blackburn said. A claims administrator will determine how the funds will be apportioned, taking into account factors like the amount of jail time served.

Norris, who called the settlement the responsible thing to do, said that the city recognizes the "misjustice" done in Tulia by the task force.

"The courts simply have not dealt in a definitive way with who is responsible for a task force operation," said Mike Loftin, an attorney hired to help the city defend itself.

In a move that Norris said is "connected" to the settlement, Amarillo police officers Sgt. Jerry Massengill and Lt. Mike Amos, two of those who had supervised Coleman, will retire before the end of the year.


The women's suit was filed Aug. 22, the same day Gov. Rick Perry pardoned 35 prosecuted in the Tulia cases. Those 35 defendants spent a combined 80 years in jail.

Norris said that Perry's decision to pardon those cases "had a direct impact on our ability to defend the case."

Following evidentiary hearings in which a judge pronounced Coleman "simply not a credible witness under oath," Swisher County officials approved a $250,000 settlement for those imprisoned on Coleman's word. In exchange, those defendants promised not to sue the county. Bossett and White did not receive any of the settlement because their charges had been dropped.

Coleman is scheduled to stand trial May 24 on perjury charges related to testimony he gave during evidentiary hearings in March 2003.

Good for the city of Amarillo for recognizing that the right thing to do was also the smart thing to do. If this has a chilling effect on enthusiasm for that kind of massive anti-drug task force, so much the better.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 11, 2004 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack

It sounds reasonable and "the right thing to do" until you realize it's ordinary taxpayers, not the losers who perpetrated it, who are left with the bill.

Too much in society is settled through civil suits ("gimme money!") and not enough through criminal charges for the individuals responsible. I guess by itself, a "guilty" verdict never allowed someone to win the lottery...

Posted by: Tim on March 11, 2004 8:27 PM

Coleman has to know if he goes to prison,he's dead meat. What a shame

Posted by: Palolo lolo on March 11, 2004 8:58 PM

Four points, Tim.

First, most importantly, this guy operated in more-or-less plain view of the local citizens who more-or-less ordered up this drug task force and more-or-less turned a blind eye to its methods. Citizens and their government are being held responsible for overseeing what's essentially a rogue contractor. If citizens don't take this responsibility seriously, it may cost 'em. It's the flip side of democracy, rule by the people. Why do you want to accept no responsibility? A claim of ignorance only gets you so far in this world.

Second, why is it that the wealthy people in this country are celebrated for accumulating dollars but you want poor people to be classier, and be satisfied with moral victories?

Third, the loser in this case presumably doesn't have anything with which to recompense the people who were mis-treated. Putting the loser in jail doesn't do much for the victims.

Fourth, envy is an ugly thing, Tim. But when you're envious of people jailed on trumped-up charges, that just seems peculiar. Good luck with your own Lottery, sir.

Course, your post could be a spoof which I've just fallen for full-tilt.

Posted by: john young on March 12, 2004 8:11 AM

John, I will address your points one at a time:

1. If any of your arguments make at least some sense, it's this one. Still, there's too much (in general) that the public has little or no control over, yet they have to pay the bill when someone else slips up.

2. Don't play the class envy card. This is about A wronging B, and B being able to collect from C, plain and simple. The only place economic status comes into play here is that C has to pay because C has all the money, NOT because C did anything wrong. And I should point out that a fair number of the excessively litigious are definitely *not* poor. Many of them have the means to hire high-powered lawyers. So your class envy dog won't hunt here.

3. That may be true, but let's look at the difference between *actual* and *punitive* damages here. Actual damages should always be recoverable to their full extent. Punitive damages should be recoverable to some extent, IMO, but ONLY against those who are actually directly responsible. "Pain and suffering" awards not related to actual damages and paid out by those not responsible for the incident

4. Okay now your rhetoric is getting a little hysterical, not just far-fetched as with your playing of the class envy card. You're losing composure here, John. Envy of those wrongly jailed? Hardly. I am legitimately sympathetic for them. And I support criminal charges AGAINST THOSE RESPONSIBLE and civil damages, to the extent possible, AGAINST THOSE RESPONSIBLE, including wage garnishments for life and other things if necessary. Plain and simple, I think making taxpayers get soaked for the criminal and negligent actions of a few individuals is just another wrong, and we all know about two wrongs and a right.

Mine wasn't a spoof, sir. But you warped the message and added copious doses of class-envy rhetoric and an absurd conclusion nevertheless. Well done, John.

Posted by: Tim on March 12, 2004 11:11 AM


1. It may be rude of me to say this, but one single Officer Coleman did not frame, arrest, sentence, and incarcerate 35 or 46 people with "little or no corroborating evidence" all by his lonesome. No jurisdiction of Texas should be jailing 35 or 46 people on the say-so of one lying SOB. You've got the whole drug task force, police supervisors, DAs, local lawyers, judges, jurors, reporters, county supervisors, and voters who could'a, might'a done more.

This country is run of the people, for the people, and by the people, or so said Abe Lincoln. When you say the public doesn't have enough control over what goes on, I couldn't agree more, sir. I submit to the self-governing people of Texas that they get with that project sooner rather than later.

2. Tim, I was just making an observation that people seem to be all delighted when a wealthy person comes into more wealth but extremely perturbed when a poor person does. That's my perception; maybe it's accurate, maybe it's not. If it IS true, I wonder why. Based on your reaction, I guessed you fit the pattern I've named, so figured I'd ask.

3. When you say "here," do you mean Tulia or are you making more sweeping statements? My understanding would be that this $5 million settlement wouldn't be making a distinction between "actual" damages and "punitive" damages, but of the settlement I only know what Kuff has posted. If there's something else to know, I'd be delighted. But frankly, the settlement doesn't look like a lot of money to me. So, what's your take on the "actual damage" owed straight-up for a gratuitous year in the pokey?

4. You the one starts talking about "winning the Lottery" when I'm learning about the cr** these people went through. Glad to hear you didn't mean you wished it was you. I got it: it wasn't envy. Must have been some other dog got you stirred up.

Posted by: John Young on March 12, 2004 5:15 PM

Okay my uncle was one of the people in the drug bust and he just wants everyone to keep this topic out of your mouth because none of yall had to sit in jail for 4 year wrongfully accused and so you wouldn't no how it feels and for the govt. just give him the rest of his money how about that!!!!!

Posted by: Tempestt on July 1, 2006 12:55 AM