Tulia arrests expunged
At long last, the final chapter in the Tulia drug bust case has been written.
More than two years after winning pardons from Gov. Rick Perry, a handful of former drug defendants walked out of the Swisher County Courthouse on Tuesday with records wiped clean of their 1999 arrests.
Visiting Judge Ron Chapman quickly expunged the records of 30 former drug defendants, an act that could not be pursued by attorneys until January's conviction of former undercover investigator Tom Coleman on a charge of perjury. Coleman was hired in 1998 to handle a sting in Tulia targeting the community's drug trade. What resulted was 47 arrests - 39 of them on black suspects.
"I anticipate that this should be the last event in this long saga," said Chapman moments after taking the bench.
Freddie Brookins, Jr, 28, posed for pictures outside the courthouse with the court documents showing the expunction of his pardoned conviction shortly after Chapman's order. On Feb. 18, 2000, Brookins was convicted on a charge of delivery of powder cocaine and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
"It's a lot better now," said Brookins. "Maybe now a lot of us can do a lot better at getting jobs."
Brookins' criminal record related to the Coleman charges disappears forever as part of the expunction.
Swisher County District Attorney Wally Hatch, who in an election defeated the sting's prosecutor, Terry McEachern, sat across from Lubbock attorney Jeff Blackburn and Washington D.C.-based attorney Jennifer Klar during the hearing, which lasted less than 10 minutes.
"The expunction was really a procedural matter to finish up the governor's pardon as far as I'm concerned," said Hatch. "I don't know that we had any grounds to oppose (the expunction)."
Klar argued for the expunctions based on Coleman being discredited, calling him a "devious and nonresponsive witness."
"The convictions were pardoned after they were substantially undermined in this court," said Klar, calling for the expunctions as an end to the process that has lasted more than seven years. "This is the last step for these folks."
For Klar, the Tulia case was her first after graduating from law school in 2002. She said having to wait through Coleman's trial was difficult but a necessary part of handling the expunctions.
"Otherwise, this whole issue would not have been able to be brought up. The evidence would not have been able to be presented," said Klar, who was present through Coleman's prosecution, often passing notes on to special prosecutor Rod Hobson, a Lubbock defense attorney.
That answers the question that I asked
when Governor Perry pardoned the Tulia defendants. Coleman's perjury conviction was the last link in the chain needed to establish that these people were not just wrongfully imprisoned but actually innocent. Coleman's downfall officially obliterated the evidence that was used not just to put the Tulians in jail but to arrest them in the first place. These are no longer people with felony convictions on their criminal record, convictions that were later set aside by the process of appeals and pardons. The record now shows that those convictions never happened. Freddie Brookins and everyone like him are back to being the unblemished citizens they were in 1998. Which is as it should be.
And as long as we're talking about final chapters, Grits tells us that Nate Blakeslee, the Texas Observer reporter who first broke the Tulia story, now has a book about the case, which gets a nice review here. I'm going to need to get myself a copy of that.
Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 02, 2005 to Crime and Punishment
As A resident of the town in question, I along with about 4000 other people living here know the truth. What you read in the newspapers, magazines, and see on newsmagazine tv shows is far from it. There is a reason Mr. Coleman was hired to come to our fair town. There is a reason he targeted the people he did. There is a reason they were so easily convicted.
Mr. Coleman was hired to gather evidence against several individuals in Tulia that were known to be using and dealing cocaine. The local police and sherrifs officers could not catch them even though they knew who the dealers were. Mr. Coleman was an outsider and was skilled at getting people of this sort to trust him. He was given names of people to contact by the local athorities. He found the people he was sent to find and lo and behold, they were selling cocaine. Yes, some was in small quantities, but they were selling.
Mr. Coleman's mistake was that he did a terrible job of documenting his dealings with the Tulia drug community.
When the defendants came to trial, yes I was involved, the locals knew that they were guitly. Many, including myself, had been approached and asked to buy as well as seeing them deal openly at the local convenience stores. So when they were caught doing what we all knew they were doing, we found them guilty.
Then it became a race issue. The only reason it became a race issue is because a vast majority of users and dealers in our town came from the black community. Yes there are users and dealers of other races, but the majority in our town were and still are black.
I'm sure you are asking yourself why a town of only 4000 people could have so many dealing and using cocaine. It's simple if you look at a map. Tulia is located on an interstate highway between Amarillo and Lubbock. Both with populations well over 100,000. Many of the Tulia dealers as well as a large number from Plainview, just south of Tulia, have easy access and a market in either of these towns.
Now that the defendants have been exonerated, they are dealing with impunity all over town. The local authorities are rightfully terrified to do anything to these individuals now. The dealers are still dealing and the users are still using and now Tulia has become a haven for those of the same tendencies to gather and practice their trade.
Who won in this? It sure wasn't the town of Tulia.