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The Tulia drug bust fiasco

Atrios points to this Bob Herbert column which gives an update on the situation in Tulia, Texas, site of one of the most botched drug-bust cases in recent memory. Atrios has some links to background information on the case, but here are a few more: the original Texas Observer story, a short followup from a few months later, and a story from this November by the same reporter.

That last link requires registration. Here’s an excerpt to whet your appetite:

Beginning with a few arrests in the mid-nineties, building momentum with a school drug-testing policy passed in 1996, and culminating in the big busts of 1999, the drug war in Tulia coincided roughly with the razing of the Flats and the black community’s move across the tracks—essentially pushing black and white Tulia into the same space for the first time ever. Of course, the timing also corresponded with the arrival of crack in the tiny towns of the Panhandle but not with the arrival of drugs per se; Tulians black and white had always had access to them, though perhaps not in proportion to their counterparts in the bigger cities. So why now, and why black Tulia?

“Propaganda is a funny animal,” said Gary O. Gardner, a farmer who lives in the nearby village of Vigo Park. Few reporters on the Tulia beat have filed their stories without a visit to Gardner’s compound, where he holds court from a converted pool room piled high with transcripts, writs, and affidavits, along with the occasional box of ammo. If [Joe Moore, currently serving a 90-year sentence] is the mayor of black Tulia, then Gardner, who is white and hails from one of the area’s original farming clans, is the mayor of rural Swisher County. Critical of the busts from early on, he has now made it his personal crusade to get Moore and the others out of prison. He blames politicians like [District Attorney Terry] McEachern for creating the atmosphere in which the busts could happen. “If you’re gonna make your living off the backs of somebody that you want to convict, you have to make ’em the enemy,” he said. “And in Tulia, everything is blamed on the black drug dealers.”


WHAT BECAME OF THE OTHER players in the sting? Officer [Tom] Coleman—presented with an Outstanding Lawman of the Year award by [then-Attorny General John] Cornyn following the busts—has since been fired from two narcotics postings and has gone to ground in Waxahachie; his lawyer deflects the media inquiries that still regularly come, from Court TV to the London Independent. Thirteen of the defendants are still in prison and serving long sentences, despite the fact that the state legislature passed several reforms in 2001 in response to what one member termed the Tulia fiasco; a team of attorneys, led by Jeff Blackburn, of Amarillo, and Vanita Gupta, of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in Washington, D.C., has taken up their cases. The governor’s office has reorganized the grant program that funded the operation, putting agents like Coleman under the supervision of the Texas Department of Public Safety. An FBI investigation announced two years ago seems to have petered out. Local authorities, for their part, have refused to condemn McEachern and [Sheriff Larry] Stewart’s handling of the cases or to call for the release of those still incarcerated. “The lesson in all of this is that there is no political benefit to ruling for these defendants, and the judges saw that clearly,” one defense attorney said. “They asked themselves, ‘Am I going to give up my career for these people?’ And the answer was ‘No.'” Or as one person in the black community put it, more succinctly, “There are a lot of good, honest people in this community. They just don’t have any balls.”

Paul Holloway found that out the hard way. An attorney in nearby Plainview, Holloway took on several of the cases in the original sting as a court-appointed attorney, and it was he who discovered much of Coleman’s personal and professional history. The son of a well-known Texas Ranger, Coleman had, as deputy, skipped town on two different sheriff’s offices over the past five years; in Cochran County, he also left $7,000 in unpaid bills. In interviews and documents collected by Holloway and other defense attorneys, former co-workers and associates of Coleman’s in both towns referred to him as a pathological liar and a paranoid gun nut. Cochran County’s sheriff filed charges against him in an effort to collect restitution and placed a letter in his official file warning future employers not to hire him in law enforcement. Deep cover in Tulia was apparently his last chance to make good. Sheriff Stewart discovered the Cochran County warrant about six months into Coleman’s tenure but decided to continue the undercover operation anyway. (Stewart would not be interviewed for this story.)

Holloway packaged up what he thought he had found and presented it to district judge Ed Self. He asked for money for expert witnesses, though he figured he wouldn’t need them. “I thought that if somebody knew about Tom, it would all be stopped,” Holloway said. Instead, Self sealed the information Holloway had spent weeks collecting and denied his request. “Do you know what this means, Judge?” Holloway asked to no avail.

“My kid is twelve years old,” Holloway told me as we rolled through the wide, quiet streets of Plainview in his gold Mercedes, “and we just watched To Kill a Mockingbird. I told him the difference between me and Atticus Finch is this: At the end of the trial—this complete railroading of an innocent man—Atticus turned to his client immediately and said, “Don’t worry. We’re going to appeal.'” But Holloway’s grasp of reality would not allow him to do that in Tulia. “I took an oath as a lawyer not to disgrace this system, but I knew in my heart they would win no appeals. If this will be stopped, it will be when the prosecutor puts a stop to it.”

Bob Herbert notes that there’s a new judge looking into the case, replacing Ed Self. That’s clearly a good thing, but unless that judge can free those that are already in jail, I think Paul Holloway is right. Look at the case of Roy Criner, for example. He wasn’t freed until the Montgomery County DA finally (and very reluctantly) asked for his freedom. The system likes closure. It doesn’t like overturning jury verdicts.

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  1. is says:

    i don’t get why kirk didn’t use this.

    did herbert write about this (cornyn’s ties to tulia)before november?

  2. is says:

    i don’t get why kirk didn’t use this.

    did herbert write about this (cornyn’s ties to tulia)before november?

  3. Two reasons that I can think of:

    1. Kirk ran a generally positive campaign (at least, the TV ads I saw were positive ones). He stressed his ability to work well with others, bridge gaps, etc etc etc. He did attack Cornyn on various topics, but never seemed to get much traction out of it.

    2. I can’t in all honesty say that this would have been a winning campaign issue. It might have helped drive black turnout, but that wouldn’t have been nearly enough to push Kirk over the top. I just don’t think the suburban swing voter would have responded well to this. It’s too remote, and the War On Some Drugs is pretty popular around here.