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February 19, 2006 - Scotland On Sunday (UK)

Tulia: Race, Cocaine And Corruption In A Small Texas Town

Basic Books, UKP15.99

By Nate Blakeslee

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

ONE morning in the summer of 1999, 47 people were arrested in the Texas Panhandle town of Tulia and charged with dealing cocaine. From the start, the indictments should have appeared suspicious. Most of those arrested were black; in fact they represented one in every five black adults in Tulia.

Was it really credible that such a significant proportion of a very small community were dealers? And who were they dealing to? They were accused of dealing in powdered cocaine, but crack was the local drug of choice.

The arrests were all the result of an undercover operation by one police officer, Tom Coleman, and his word was pretty much the only evidence backing the charges. But Coleman was the son of a Texas Ranger. The local sheriff, district attorney and, as it would turn out, judges were prepared to back prosecutions on the thinnest of evidence.

Blakeslee's riveting account of what proved to be a gross miscarriage of justice does not shy away from the moral complexities of the case. While some of the defendants led blameless lives, some used and even dealt in drugs and would fall back into that world after their release. Public apathy at the time seems in part to have been prompted by a belief, particularly among whites, that if the accused were not guilty as charged they were probably guilty of something.

Most of the defendants were classified as indigent, and lawyers were appointed on their behalf. These lawyers were, with one exception, useless and did little or no work on the background to the cases. The exception, Paul Holloway, began digging into Tom Coleman's background. He discovered he had left his previous police job in another part of Texas in disgrace, leaving behind debts. He had been indicted for stealing police property for personal use, a charge dropped only when he paid off everything he owed.

The doubts about the case deepened further when it emerged that during an earlier job, in Pecos County, Coleman had an abusive relationship with his wife and was drummed out of town after a public meeting was held to get rid of him.

Holloway began to suspect Coleman had repaid his debts using money given to him to buy drugs for the undercover operation. The theory, confirmed much later, was that Coleman cut the powder to such an extent that it was unusable, but would still register as containing cocaine on a police test. The implication, never proved conclusively, was that Coleman framed at least some of the defendants and in effect sold the adulterated cocaine to himself.

At the trials, all of this counted for nothing. The evidence about Coleman's background was ruled inadmissible. The judges began handing out sentences which, on the face of it, were absurd. Cash Love, a 25-year-old white man who had a child with a black woman, was given 361 years. Joe Moore, a 58-year-old black man who was something of a pillar of the community, was given 90 years. Realising they could not win, the defence lawyers urged many of the defendants to accept plea bargains.

FOR THE MAJORITY of the white folks of Tulia, backed vocally by their local newspaper, this was just fine. But not for Gary Gardner, a bankrupt white farmer who steps into this story straight from the pages of a Carl Hiaasen novel. While fighting against the verdicts, he was urged by radio producers not to refer to black people as "niggers" on air.

But Gardner knew and liked Joe Moore and could not believe he was a drug dealer. He spent thousands of dollars of his own money on court transcripts, and together with an oddball collection of campaigners, including Nate Blakeslee, a Texas journalist and the author of this book, they set out to turn Tulia into a national cause celebre.

They attracted the attention first of the New York Times, then the BBC, then a high-powered team of Manhattan civil rights lawyers who succeeded in staging another hearing on the cases with a new judge. Eventually the defendants were released and pardoned by the state governor. Tom Coleman, his credibility destroyed, was tried and paroled; his career as a police officer was ruined.

This is strong stuff and would make an interesting tale in almost any hands. But Nate Blakeslee uses his considerable journalistic skill and invaluable local knowledge to turn his account of what happened in Tulia into something exceptional.

There was racism, of course. But, with the possible exception of Tom Coleman, no one involved seemed a virulent racist. They pandered, rather, to the background racism of the white community. But the American system of electing justice officers gave the DA, the sheriff and the judge every interest in pressing on even when they must have had doubts.

Then there was the peculiar status of the Texas Rangers, an elite unit which has the responsibility, among other things, for policing the police. At one stage Coleman produced two Rangers as character witnesses. In the eyes of a Tulia jury, that was more than enough to trump the manifest contradictions in his evidence.

There was the system which produced the "jump-out boys", narcotics officers who earned their nickname from carrying out vehicle searches without cause. They were part of narcotics task forces set up under a federal system which matched local funds if police would co-operate across county lines.

Then rules were brought in to allow the narcs to keep much of the money they found, until eventually they relied on asset seizures to keep them in a job the following year. Officers were allowed to work undercover after only a few weeks' training. Coleman appears to have taken abuse of the system to an extreme, but incentives for abuse were built in.

In the background, the economy exerted a steady influence. Overfarming was draining the aquifer which underlies the Dustbowl, leading to a concentration of farms, fewer jobs and farmers going bust. Lack of employment and the breakdown of family life meant few of the Tulia defendants had lives ordered enough to provide them with alibis.

Blakeslee's handling of these complexities is masterful, and provides many respectable reasons to read his book -- by the end he does not need to hammer home the wider implications for current debates about the fight against terrorism, or drugs, or organised crime. But there is a more basic reason: this account is utterly compelling. The next time you feel the urge to pick up a thriller, don't. Read Tulia instead.

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