September 20, 2004
FBI report on Tulia investigation

The Express News reports on an FBI investigation into the Tulia drug busts and which concludes that there's no evidence of racial motives on the part of disgraced undercover agent Tom Coleman, and thus no evidence with which to bring federal civil rights charges against him.

The civil rights investigations centered on a 1999 sting by an Amarillo-based regional drug task force and Tom Coleman, its undercover officer.

Coleman's uncorroborated solo work resulted in the arrests of dozens of Tulia residents, most of them black, and provoked national condemnation as blatantly racist.

The FBI, and later then-Attorney General John Cornyn, responded by launching separate civil rights investigations, the results of which remain tightly guarded.

The records summarizing the FBI's investigative work are contained in a Texas attorney general's file.

KTVT-CBS 11 in Dallas independently obtained the file after the state office, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice turned down open records requests.

According to the records, the lead FBI agent who spent nearly three years looking for evidence that Coleman, who is Anglo, was racist and that he fabricated evidence to rid Tulia of blacks, found nothing to support those allegations.

Amarillo-based Special Agent Tim Reid, who led the bureau's civil rights inquiry, told state investigators as they were starting their own probe in late 2002, "It was his opinion that the Tulia arrests were not racially motivated, and Thomas Coleman had not violated any laws."

Reid also concluded that no evidence could be found that Coleman ever tampered with evidence and said he could find no proof of juror misconduct in the original Tulia trials.


Civil rights activists condemned the FBI and state investigations as faulty and inadequate.

One of them, Tulia resident Gary Gardner, said his own investigation and collection of court records contradict all of the FBI's findings. He blamed investigative shortcomings by the FBI and attorney general for the lack of civil rights-related charges against anyone.

"I did not attack publicly the charade until it became apparent that people like the Rangers and the FBI were not going to do a proper job of investigating and assuring justice was done," Gardner said.

Alan Bean, a minister who founded Friends of Justice in the wake of the Tulia drug sting scandal, said the issue was never about the guilt or innocence of the defendants. At issue was the fundamental validity of legal procedures in which people were imprisoned on the uncorroborated word of a single undercover officer with a checkered past.

Coleman's "allegations against (the Tulia defendants), and any allegations they might have made against him, devolve into a swearing match between a cop and convict. Forced to choose between Coleman and the convict de jure, nine Tulia juries went with Coleman," Bean wrote in an e-mail.

"It is hardly surprising that the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Texas attorney general's office would also side with Coleman. Forced to choose between Coleman and a convicted felon, and with nothing to go on beside allegations and denials, they were going to side with Coleman."

Reid told state investigators he did find fault with Coleman and his bosses.

A Feb. 27, 2003, memo at the attorney general's office listed six "Problem Areas" in the Tulia sting.

They included that Coleman lacked of qualifications for major undercover work, that his bosses let him return to the operation after a theft charge against him came to light, and that his methods of identifying suspects were flawed.

It's hard for me to believe that there was no racial element at play in the Tulia case, though the story notes that in other cases which featured Coleman there were no similar disparities. I don't doubt that it would be hard to prove a federal civil-rights violation charge, but I feel unsatisfied with what I've read here. It doesn't look to me like there will be anything more to it at this point, though.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 20, 2004 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack

Just saw this post. The article you cited wasn't quite the last word on Tulia -- you missed Dr. Alan Bean's column in the Plainview Herald in response. It's still online at

Thanks for your coverage of the Tulia saga, and especially your points about Blakeslee v Herbert. I worked on the issue at the Legislature for ACLU. We really appreciate the support, and the recognition that this didn't all change because some New York Times columnist decided it was wrong! Best,

Posted by: Scott on October 20, 2004 12:05 PM