July 17, 2004
Tulia settlement checks disbursed

Almost all of the Tulia defendents received a share of the settlement yesterday in their lawsuit against the counties involved in the drug sting that unjustly sent them to prison. They also received some financial planning help, and an excellent piece of advice.

All but four of the 46 people arrested by a Panhandle narcotics task force solely on the word of one undercover agent received their pre-tax portion Friday of the settlement with Amarillo and 26 counties.

Three of the former defendants, nearly all of whom are black, are still in prison because the drug arrest violated their parole. Their money went into a trust account.

The fourth died before the filing of the civil lawsuit claiming the arrests were racially motivated.


To steer her clients away from future trouble, Vanita Gupta of the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund hosted a financial seminar in Tulia days before the checks were delivered.

Sitting in a meeting room in the Swisher County Memorial Building bearing the last name of two former local sheriffs, about two dozen people got a crash course in money management from a New York-based venture capitalist.

Nine hours stretched over two days, however, is not enough time to teach more than the basics to the few who had never opened a bank account, others in need of general equivalency diplomas and several without jobs or chances of getting one.

But their teacher, Melissa Bradley, a Soros Justice Fellow at the Open Society Institute, refused to accept a lack of formal financial education as an excuse to squander the settlement.

"There is no reason you should not have more money a year from Friday than you do on Friday," she told them. " ... You have the opportunity, if you put in the time, if you put in the effort, to make this money grow."

That will be a self-motivated enterprise since there's little help in the community where many of them grew up and still live.

Tulia has been a town of just 5,000 people since 1970.

The library has several outdated financial planning books on its shelves, including a tax preparation guide from 1995. Three banks serve the town, and the personal banker at one has not completed college.

And many residents expect the worst of the former defendants.

Although no white Tulia residents agreed to be quoted, all who commented believe most of the Tulia 46 sell drugs despite Chapman's ruling that no evidence supported the accusations.

They also predicted every cent of the money received Friday will be gone in a year.


Willie Hall plans to open a beauty supply store in Tulia. Others inquired about buying the town's defunct Dairy Queen.

Such dreams have raised the anger of neighbors who can't imagine their dusty downtown being revitalized by people who don't regularly attend one of the two dozen churches in town.

"That people can do wrong and come out of prison with a clean slate and more money than anybody else has ever had, that's not fair," says Dora Benard, a black resident who prayed on the jailhouse steps for many of the defendants.

Gupta, of the NAACP legal defense fund, warned that investing in Tulia is risky.

"By and large, folks need to think about relocating and moving to a place where the stigma of the sting is not always on their backs," she said. "It will be much harder to succeed at using this money to improve their lives as long as they live in a place where everyone else believes they are guilty people and what they are receiving is not deserved."

I hope each of them gives long thought to what Vanita Gupta is saying. I can't help but think that the best thing each of the 42 who received a check yesterday could do is pack up their belongings and their loved ones and get the hell out of Tulia, never to look back. I'd like nothing more than to read in a "Where are they now?" piece in five or ten years that most if not all of them started new lives elsewhere and are happy that they did so.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 17, 2004 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack