Wednesday, June 16, marks the first anniversary of the happiest day in the short but remarkable career of New York civil rights attorney Vanita Gupta -- a year to the day when the Texas legislature passed a law that saw the immediate release of her black clients from prison.
The clients had been locked away on the say-so of an undercover narcotics agent and Ku Klux Klan member whose rap sheet includes convictions for theft, fraud and abuse of police power.
Gupta was 26 years old and three months out of New York University School of Law in the fall of 2001 when she began her work in Tulia, Texas, as lead counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in civil litigation that drew global attention.
The star investigator for the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force was Swisher County Deputy Sheriff Tom Coleman, who operated undercover.
Coleman's testimony was so thoroughly impeached in appeals court cross-examination that local prosecutors eventually sided with Gupta and her team of volunteer attorneys in persuading Governor Rick Perry to pardon all 45 defendants who had been convicted as the result of Coleman's testimony.
In the most notorious sweep of arrests orchestrated by Coleman, The Independent newspaper of Britain reported that half the adult black male population of Tulia was rousted before dawn by white task force officers.
The Tulia Sentinel carried news of the operation beneath the headline:
"Tulia's Streets Cleared of Garbage." The paper's editorial page lavished praise on the task force for rounding up the town's drug-dealing "scumbags."
Gupta sees all this as the tip of an iceberg of racism, preserved by what she catalogues as "inept defense, prosecutorial misconduct, and a failure of national narcotics policy." And seeing her clients walk free last year was hardly the end of it for Gupta.
Last month, she and the Tulia team brokered the settlement of a suit against municipal signatories to the regional task force, including the nearby city of Amarillo, winning $5 million in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, to be divided among the wrongfully arrested.
"Attorneys on both sides of this case valued the potential liability at $53 million or higher," said Amarillo City Attorney Marcus W. Norris in a written statement. "A verdict of that magnitude would have had a devastating impact ... perhaps leading to insolvency of smaller cities and counties.
"The city's ability to successfully defend itself in this case was drastically compromised by the pardon[s]," Norris added in his statement. "The undercover agent in this case, Tom Coleman, has been discredited on numerous occasions, and is currently facing perjury charges in district court in Swisher County."
Coleman's telephone has been disconnected. His attorney did not return calls for comment.
Gupta said that "many hands" were involved in combatting the atmosphere she found in Tulia, among them attorneys from the Washington, D.C., firms Hogan & Hartson, and Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale and Dorr; the New York-based William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice; and the media, notably Bob Herbert of The New York Times.
"We're in a climate that's really hostile to civil rights lawyering and the law itself," said Gupta in a telephone interview from Lake Charles, La., where she is preparing the second case of her career.
"I can't rely on the courts alone. I have to be creative, I have to build coalitions. I have to work with reporters. I think lawyers these days are not aggressive enough in pitching the media to huge injustices."
War On Drugs Critic
She is a critic of the government's "war on drugs."
"It's time for these laws to change, it's time for us to have a rational drug policy," said Gupta. "That's why we now see judges, conservatives and liberals alike, who are speaking out. It's gone too far, it no longer makes any sense.
"And what's the result of it all? We're now incarcerating more people than the European Union combined, several times over."
Gupta has won the admiration of law firm partners familiar with her work.
"Here she was, less than a year out of law school and she called me up," said E. Desmond Hogan, a litigation partner at Hogan & Hartson who worked pro bono as a principal co-counsel in the Tulia cases. "As I talked with her by phone, I kept thinking, boy, this woman sounds like she's at least 15 years out of law school. Well, she talked me into jumping on a train and coming up to New York to talk to her about signing on."
Joseph E. Killory Jr., a partner at Wilmer Cutler, was likewise impressed when he joined Gupta, by far the youngest member of the Tulia defense team.
Young And Fearless
"Vanita is quite young, yes, but she has maturity and she's fearless. Vanita was our captain, the heart and soul of the operation," said Killory. "Down there in Tulia, we had to go into some pretty sketchy areas at night to dig up witnesses. She just hopped in the car, no second thoughts.
"Nobody down there looked at Vanita and said, 'Who's this kid?' She was disarming and charming, and her adversaries had a grudging respect for her -- really, an affection."
Professor Randy Hertz of NYU Law is among Gupta's mentors.
"She is dogged. She combines persistence with this gentle spirit that means other people never take offense when she pushes," he said. "That is a valuable trait for an advocate."
Gupta said that when she was in England as a girl, she and her grandmother were taunted in a restaurant by a group of skinheads.
"I chose the law as a way to do what my father and mother encouraged my sister and me to do: to look at the world outside of ourselves and our immediate lives." she said. "People should not be comfortable living lives secure just for themselves."
In Louisiana, Gupta will help defend black prison inmate Wilbert Rideau, incarcerated in Louisiana's Angola State Prison for 40 years.
Three convictions for the 1961 murder of a teller during a bank robbery have been thrown out. Now the district attorney of Calcasieu Parish is seeking a fourth trial. Gupta's co-counsel in the Rideau case is Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.
Last month, Gupta collected a pair of tributes for her work in Tulia: the 2004 Reebok Human Rights Award and the Upakar Community Ambassador Award, given by a Washington-based organization for Indian-American scholars.
No such tribute, she said, can match the sentiments of a plaque displayed in her Hudson Street office, a gift from clients who thank her for "doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly in Tulia, Texas."
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