Just about everyone in Tulia, Texas, knows who Tom Coleman is.
The former deputy sheriff's 18-month undercover operation was the impetus for the July 1999 arrests of 46 people on drug charges. Of those arrested, 39 were African-American, more than 10% of the black residents of Tulia, a panhandle town of about 5,000 people.
But Coleman's sting operation was a sham, and the trials, convictions and prison sentences were a systematic miscarriage of justice that eventually grabbed national headlines.
Now it's Coleman's turn on the hot seat. He is scheduled to stand trial on May 24 for three counts of aggravated perjury for allegedly lying when he testified at an evidentiary writ hearing last year. State v. Coleman, No. A-3998-03-04 (Swisher Co., Texas, Dist Ct.).
And last week, a grievance committee of the State Bar of Texas found there was just cause to believe that District Attorney Terry McEachern, who prosecuted all the cases, committed professional misconduct.
The bar will soon file a suit in the Texas Supreme Court seeking sanctions against him. The court will then assign a judge from outside Swisher County to preside.
The now-familiar story of how the Tulia prosecutions unraveled credits the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF)-along with several high-powered northern law firms-for cracking the case. But long before any outsiders showed up, the work of two Texas solo practitioners led the way.
90 years in jail
The first trial was held in December 1999. The defendant, Joe Moore, 67, a former bootlegger in dry Swisher County, was sentenced to 90 years in prison for selling 1 to 4 grams of cocaine. McEachern called him a major dealer. Moore lived in a rented, dilapidated farmhouse. No drugs, weapons or cash were seized at his or any of the other arrests.
The trials, convictions and heavy sentences continued in January. Christopher Jackson got 20 years; Jason Williams, 45 years; Cash Love, 99. Probation, or even the 18 years that Dennis Mitchell Allen got when he pleaded, began to look good.
District Judge Edward Self, who handled almost all the cases, appointed the defense lawyers. But having a lawyer usually didn't mean much, because the prosecution didn't turn over exculpatory evidence and the court didn't provide money for counsel to hire investigators.
And then came Paul Holloway.
Holloway, a solo practitioner from Plainview, Texas, was appointed to represent four Tulia defendants. He knew there was something wrong with the arrests. They were all for powder cocaine, and anyone familiar with the local drug scene knew that users in Tulia preferred crack.
After Self denied a motion for funds to hire an investigator in August 1999, Holloway took on the job himself. He drove 100 miles to Cochran County, Texas, where Coleman had worked as a peace officer before taking the Swisher County job. Holloway discovered that Coleman had been charged with embezzling from that county and had been arrested in Tulia by Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart while the undercover operation was in full swing.
Holloway found a letter written by Cochran County Sheriff Ken Burke to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, dated June 1996, saying Coleman "should not be in law enforcement if he is going to do people like he did in this town."
Holloway learned that the charges against Coleman had been dismissed after he made full restitution of almost $7,000. He wondered how Coleman could have accomplished that, given his low wages and many outstanding debts.
So Holloway filed an ex parte motion in Self's court requesting that a forensic accountant be appointed. His theory was that Coleman-who worked for the Swisher County sheriff's department under the auspices of the Texas Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force-had pocketed most of the drug-buy money to pay off his debts, and that few buys were actually made. Self denied the motions, ruling that Coleman's arrest was irrelevant to the proceedings, Holloway said.
Self put the financial and other records that Holloway had subpoenaed into a sealed envelope, which he forwarded to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Self wanted to make the records available to that court so it could make its own determination of relevance if cases got appealed. (All the convictions later appealed were confirmed.)
To reduce his clients' exposure, Holloway advised his clients to enter guilty pleas, although he felt certain that at least one of them was completely innocent. In March 2000, two of his clients got probation. The others received prison terms of six years and 12 years.
"No one should ever have to face charges under those conditions," Holloway bitterly recalled. He took everything he knew to the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division and others, he said. But "no one seemed interested or picked up the ball."
But Holloway didn't pass on his findings or suspicions about Coleman to defense attorneys who had pending cases. He reasoned that since what he discovered had been ruled inadmissible, not spreading the word would preserve other defendants' rights to claim that the state had failed to turn over exculpatory evidence.
Though well-meaning, that decision was ill thought out, said criminal defense lawyers who would later hammer him for his nondisclosure. Though a public airing might have affected future prosecutions, it was unlikely given the judge's prior rulings. Disheartened, Holloway stopped taking court appointments.
On June 23, 2000, Texas Observer published an expose that examined the Tulia prosecutions. The article alleged that the sting operation had racial overtones. It also exposed Coleman's past in stunning detail. It said that the 46-year-old high school dropout, who got his GED at age 27, was not subject to rehire at his last two jobs, and that his wages had been garnisheed for not paying child support.
The article inspired Jeff Blackburn, a solo practitioner from Amarillo, Texas. In August 2000, Blackburn formed the Tulia Legal Defense Project with his office's two paralegals and another lawyer. Their goal was to execute a strategy for post-conviction proceedings.
Known by his admirers as the "Samurai of the Panhandle," Blackburn, a criminal defense lawyer, filed a civil rights suit on behalf of Billy Wafer. When represented by Brent Hamilton of Plainview's LaFont, Tunnell, Formy, LaFont & Hamilton, Wafer's criminal case was dismissed when he produced time cards that showed him at work at a feed barn at the time Coleman said he sold him drugs.
The suit permitted, for the first time, the taking of the depositions of Coleman, Sheriff Stewart and regional narcotics officials. Blackburn brought in Chris Hoffman of Amarillo's Hoffman, Shefield, Sauseta & Hoffman. Hoffman's father, Tim Hoffman, took the depositions.
The June 2001 deposition nailed down Coleman's unconventional procedures. No one corroborated the 100-plus buys he claimed he'd made. He worked alone, wore no recording device and chronicled the drug transactions he allegedly made over the course of a day by writing notes on his legs.
The depositions also nailed down what Coleman's employers knew about his past and when they knew it. These depositions would become the blueprints for evidentiary writ hearings that would come two years later. Wafer reached a settlement with the county in October 2001. Its terms are sealed. Wafer v. Coleman, No. 2-01CV-0079J (N.D. Texas).
In July and November 2001, Blackburn got the only two cases that hadn't been adjudicated. Zuri Bossett and Tonya White maintained their innocence. They hadn't been arrested with the others because their whereabouts were unknown to authorities. Blackburn, working pro bono, filed an "ocean of motions," in their cases, he said.
White claimed that she was living in Oklahoma when she was alleged to have sold drugs to Coleman-but she had no way to prove it. But five days before trial, Mattie White, Tonya's mother, remembered that Tonya had been receiving workers' compensation. Tonya, when called, couldn't recall which bank she deposited the checks in, but she described the bank and the area it was in.
An investigator was sent to Oklahoma City and found the bank-and a bonus: There was a record of a bank transaction she made in person, which would have made it impossible for her to have been in Tulia when Coleman claimed he bought drugs from her. White's case was dismissed in April 2002; Bossett's in July. By then, Blackburn said, he had spent $46,727 on investigative fees, a poll for failed change-of-venue motions, polygraphs and other expenses.
About then the new wave of lawyers began arriving to help, led by Vanita Gupta, an attorney with the Criminal Justice Project of LDF. "[Blackburn] was a savvy litigator and we were lucky to be able to build on that work to achieve the results that we did," said Gupta.
After the writ hearings Gupta led, conclusions of law called for the dismissal of all charges because they were based on perjured testimony and because the government had withheld the kind of exculpatory evidence that Holloway had sought.
Last June, the prisoners were released pending adjudication of the writs after state legislators passed special bills without dissent. Then in August, the governor pardoned 35 of those convicted.
In a phone interview before the Texas bar grievance committee's decision to sue him, McEachern said he would never have brought the prosecutions if he knew then what he knows now.
He faulted Stewart and the narcotics task force for not thoroughly investigating Coleman's prior police work and reputation, although he doesn't think they intended to mislead the court.
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