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October 2, 2005 - Dallas Morning News (TX)

Review: Book Puts Tulia Process On Trial

By Jerome Weeks, The Dallas Morning News

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Texas justice went horribly wrong in Tulia in 1999, columnists and pundits quickly agreed. Forty-seven people, many of them black, all of them poor, were arrested for selling cocaine. There was no coke found, no videotape of any drug buy and several of the accused had no criminal records. One wasn't even in town for her alleged drug deal. But in weighing the vague, unsupported say-so of a single narcotics officer against all these people from the wrong end of town, Tulia juries kept giving them 20 years, 60 years, 361 years, until a clutch of local cranks, incensed attorneys, drug-war opponents and honest cops stopped the railroading.

Yet what Nate Blakeslee depicts in his new book, Tulia: Race, Cocaine and Corruption in a Small Texas Town, is a criminal justice system that, as clunky as it is, actually functioned quite well. It's our state's law-enforcement-and-prison industry, ever-expanding but low-paying and undertrained. It's the mind-set that enforces racism and punishes the poor. It's the drug war tactics that encourage corruption and cynicism - that system worked fine.

And after the coke-and-race scandals in Dallas and Tulia, the Houston crime lab scandal, the media uproars and the late-in-the-day political interventions, that system still chugs along. It hasn't even changed much in Tulia.

Mr. Blakeslee was the Texas Observer journalist who wrote the first major feature on questionable aspects of the early trials. With that head start, he's written a first-rate piece of "injustice" journalism, the kind of book that outrages while it fascinates. Mr. Blakeslee's prose won't inspire readers with much lyrical finesse. But his story, though, encompasses dozens of defendants, lawyers and hearings, yet he lays out a clear, compelling narrative with some cantankerous Texas characters thrown in. Most importantly, he makes sense of it all. Coming out Tuesday, Tulia is a prime example of true crime reporting. The bonus is that it may be second only to Buzz Bissinger's Friday Night Lights as a slice of hardscrabble Panhandle life.

The Tulia disaster wasn't the product of just a rogue cop. Named Texas Lawman of the Year for his drug stings, Tom Coleman was such a train wreck that, while supposedly uncovering a horde of dealers who were making a rather improbable living in a town of only 5,000 people, he was arrested himself for skipping out on thousands in debts. Swisher County officials stood behind Mr. Coleman's drug busts while apparently not divulging his arrest or his previous work failures to the under-motivated, court-appointed defense attorneys. This is what boosted his lies into a Texas-sized embarrassment, a revelation of How Things Too Often Get Done Around Here.

But Mr. Blakeslee doesn't stop with peeling back the deceits that led to Mr. Coleman's conviction for perjury. Lots of media stories, notably Bob Herbert's series of righteously angry columns in The New York Times , did as much, even pegging young NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer Vanita Gupta as one of the heroes.

It's Mr. Coleman's book that also helps us understand:

How the Panhandle's agricultural economy has gone to seed, thanks in part to farm subsidies. While many middle-class, Tulia whites resent aid to the poor, $28.7 million in annual handouts to (often well-off) county landowners ensure that almost everyone there is on some kind of dole. Keeping the land fallow also ensures that farm workers and feed store owners end up out of work.

How drug enforcement has become pork-ified. Rushed into law by a Democratic Congress eager to be tough on crime, the so-called Byrne grants have funded county-level task forces. But from the start, these were seen as "a valuable way for the governor to seek favor with rural and suburban communities." For a patrol officer to become a narc now might involve a whole two weeks of training. After that, he'd better produce some aggressive results so the county can keep cashing those Byrne checks. Both President Clinton and the conservative Heritage Foundation have called for the program's end, to no avail.

How race and sex persist as determining factors in arrest and trial. Mr. Coleman commonly used racial slurs, while a local newspaper headlined its report of the sting, "Tulia's Streets Cleared of Garbage." Most of the defendants were black or Hispanic, and a number had mixed-race children. The prosecutor, Mr. Blakeslee contends, played on all this in a rural county that had recently convicted a young black male of rape. Pressured by her parents, the young white victim denied ever knowing him (despite defense witnesses to the contrary). Yet she also testified this stranger had come to her house and she willingly gave him a ride home. At 1:30 a.m. The accused got 70 years.

With all of this and more as background, Mr. Blakeslee builds a dramatic, David-vs.-Goliath story, chronicling a truly rare event in Texas justice. How often does a poor, black, cotton baler from the Panhandle get his drug case fought by a half-dozen high-priced lawyers working pro bono? Answer: About as often as our Court of Criminal Appeals reverses a conviction. In spite of Tulia, most Texans will probably hold to a "bad apple" explanation of what happened. To which, one former narcotics officer makes perhaps the most disturbing response, as quoted by Mr. Blakeslee: "Everybody's talking about Tom Coleman - well, there are whole task forces of Tom Colemans out there."

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