Tulia, Tex., doesn't quite have the ring of Jasper - the East Texas town where a black man was dragged to his death in 1998 - but from 2000 to 2003, this dying cow and farming town in the Texas panhandle became increasingly notorious for a bogus drug sting that unjustly sent a good portion of the town's blacks to prison.
The media glare didn't prompt a lot of soul-searching in white, official Tulia. (The Chamber of Commerce put out a bumper sticker, "Hallelujah, I'm from Tulia.") If anything, such scrutiny added to an aggrieved sense of being misunderstood by the rest of the country.
Elsewhere, those inclined to think the worst of Texas did.
But if official Tulia had anyone to blame for its harsh spotlight, it wasn't a carpetbagging journalist. A native Texan, Nate Blakeslee, broke the story for the scrappy Texas Observer, and without his 8,000-word investigative piece, much of the rest of the national news coverage might never have followed or the convicted been exonerated.
"Tulia," Blakeslee's expansion of that coverage, is a devastating critique of Texas' judicial system and the nation's drug laws. But it is foremost a riveting legal thriller about the inspirational men and women - including those in and around Tulia - who refused to let the injustice stand.
Atticus Finch, after all, was from a small Southern town, too. And "Tulia," in Blakeslee's rich and deeply satisfying telling, resembles nothing so much as a modern-day "To Kill a Mockingbird" - or would, that is, if the novel were a true story and Atticus had won.
In the predawn hours of July 23, 1999, local police and state troopers, overdressed in SWAT-team regalia, roused 47 men and women from their homes in Tulia, hauled them (half dressed, their hair still uncombed) before news cameras, and charged them with dealing drugs. "They're arresting all the black folks!" a friend cried to her neighbor. It was no exaggeration. The number of black defendants - 38 - represented 20 percent of the town's tiny black population, not including children.
The arrests were based on the inconsistent testimony of a single undercover officer, Tom Coleman, whom previous employers had described as having "possible mental problems" and who had been arrested, even as the sting was under way, for stealing at his prior job. Coleman could provide no corroborating evidence of his drug purchases - no video or voice recordings or other officers as witnesses. And there were other puzzlements: most of the indictments were for distributing a single "eight ball" (about a thimbleful) of powdered cocaine, a drug more likely to turn up among Dallas investment bankers than in a poor, black community where slopping hogs was a major industry and drug users, such as there were, stuck to cheaper marijuana or crack.
None of this seemed to trouble Terry McEachern, the district attorney, who pursued the prosecutions with ruthless zeal, seeking and getting staggeringly long sentences - 20, 45, 90 years - even for defendants with no prior records.
Most of the accused couldn't afford lawyers - or even bail. Some were so obviously innocent - a bank record put Tonya White in another state at the time of the alleged buy - even the hard-core McEachern reluctantly dropped their indictments. Others, like Freddie Brookins Jr., came from solid striving families that had never had any entanglements with the law. A few, like Donnie Smith, were known drug users - but still claimed they hadn't done what Coleman said. Blakeslee never sugarcoats such differences, but deftly shows how differently the courts in Tulia treated defendants depending on their race and class.
The repeated drug offenses and burglary charges of a white relative of a county judge, for example, resulted in dismissal, offers of rehab and probation; Kareem White, a youthful, one-time offender in the Tulia bust, got 60 years - even after it became clear Coleman probably fabricated the sting, which was destroying entire families. White was the third of Mattie White's six children given long prison terms as a consequence of the investigation.
In time, the Tulia travesty attracted the attention of Vanita Gupta, a young and otherworldly Indian lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York, who, with quiet resolve, called in the heavy legal guns. But no one might have heard of Tulia, not even Blakeslee, were it not for a diverse group of local lawyers and rabble-rousers, as colorful as they are unlikely, who took up the cause early on. Blakeslee gives them their just and entertaining due.
There's Gary Gardner, a 300-pound bankrupt farmer, who makes a uniform of overalls and a straw hat and likes to play up his redneck persona by liberally sprinkling his conversation with racial epithets, much to the consternation of the NAACP defense fund crowd. Armed with Black's Law Dictionary and quotations from Mark Twain, he becomes a formidable force for the defense.
There's Paul Holloway, who began his career as a corporate lawyer in Houston. Despite the miserly compensation Texas offers for taking on indigent cases, Holloway mounts a furious defense of his clients, uncovering damaging facts about Coleman that become the basis for the later appeals.
Jeff Blackburn is the one local lawyer who makes it onto Gupta's eventual team. A self-described leftist intellectual who has posters of Mother Jones and A. Philip Randolph on his wall, he can't imagine living anywhere but Amarillo, Tex., where, Blakeslee writes, "people smoked when they felt like it and ate red meat for lunch and dinner - and sometimes for breakfast, too." Whoever said Texas was uncomplicated?
With equal nuance and sympathy, Blakeslee analyzes the underlying attitudes that prepared so many white Tulians to believe, against all probability, that a major drug ring was operating in their midst. Blakeslee has a masterly grasp of the region's history, from the impact of United States agricultural policies to postwar politics. And he is brilliant on the gossip and petty rivalries that drive agendas in any small town. At one point, a letter Gardner has written to the local newspaper - and which the editor has refused to print - gets slipped into type by a staff member who has a grudge against the boss. The letter provokes the judge into a crucial gaffe on which Gupta's legal strategy depends.
Blakeslee also manages to dissect the disastrous inefficacy of the nation's drug war without ever slowing the pace of his page turner. He shows how draconian drug laws devised with big cities in mind can fall most heavily on poor rural blacks.
Many of the Tulia defendants, for example, were subject to what's known as "enhancements" for selling drugs near a park or school.
But Tulia is so small - barely one square mile - that fully half of the town falls into one or another of these "drug-free zones." As a result, even first-time drug offenders faced sentences of up to 99 years.
Many were leaving small children behind them.
When the cavalry finally arrives at the courthouse, it does so in a string of black S.U.V.'s. "The attorneys," Blakeslee writes, "marched up the steps, grim-faced in their dark suits and sunglasses . . . like TV-drama F.B.I. agents, coming to investigate crop circles." They order meatless fajitas at the local diner.
They FedEx a box of pens, legal pads and papers clips to themselves, as if Tulia were not only the land of no justice, but "no office supply stores." They also - admirably, marvelously - get the job done, but not before more riveting plot twists than in a Grisham or Turow novel.
"The attention of the nation was focused on this little panhandle courthouse," Blakeslee writes, "but where are the local folks?" In one of the more depressing aspects of this otherwise surprisingly upbeat story, they don't show up. The truth outs - but those most needing to hear it won't.
TULIA: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town. By Nate Blakeslee. Illustrated. 450 pp. PublicAffairs. $26.95.
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