November 3, 2005 - San Antonio Current (TX)
Snitching On The Snitches
Nate Blakeslee Takes A Hard Look At A Justice System That
Relies On Criminal Informants
By John DeFore
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(Found posted at the Who's A Rat? website)
In Tulia, former Texas Observer editor Nate Blakeslee
digs deeper into a story he broke in 2000, that of a tiny Panhandle
town where a corrupt undercover officer and some too-easily-convinced
juries incarcerated one of every five black adults on largely
baseless drug charges. Next week, Blakeslee will read from his
book (Tulia: Race, Cocaine And Corruption In A Small Texas
Town) at the Twig, alongside fellow Observer veteran
Karen Olsson, whose novel Waterloo is also hot off the
presses [see "Southern discomfort," August 25-31,
How does the Tulia story compare to the one [in which 28
black citizens of Edna, Texas were convicted on drug charges
using manufactured evidence] on the cover of last week's Austin
Like Tulia, Edna seems to be a story about, among other things,
the decline in the standards of narcotics enforcement in Texas.
In its details, the story in Edna actually reminds me more of
the scandal in Hearne, the central-Texas town in which an undercover
bust fell to pieces in 2001 because of fabricated evidence. As
in Edna, the police in Hearne tried to make cases not with an
undercover police officer, but with a confidential informant,
more commonly called a snitch. Snitches are supposed to be used
to gather information - though they can be notoriously unreliable
even for that purpose. In Hearne and Edna, however, the police
allowed their snitch to actually make the undercover bust on
his or her own, with no surveillance by actual police officers.
The potential for fraud here is enormous. Snitches generally
work for money or to get themselves out of trouble for previous
busts. They are often drug abusers themselves, as was the case
in both Edna and Hearne. In both cases, the snitch used a hidden
tape recorder to supposedly corroborate his buys, but these recordings
are notoriously unreliable as evidence. In Hearne, distinct voices
could rarely be heard on the tapes, and the snitch admitted that
he simply simulated the sounds of a drug transaction in some
How did you get involved with the Tulia story?
I first heard about Tulia in the spring of 2000 through a
letter sent to the Texas Observer in Austin, where I was
working as a reporter. I had already done a couple of drug-war
stories by that time, and both had involved the type of regional
drug task force that had run the Tulia operation. The letter
focused on the racial aspect of the Tulia bust - 39 of the 47
people indicted were black, in a small Panhandle town with very
few black people. But what got me interested more than anything
were the sentences involved.
The first defendant got 90 years for delivery of a single
eight-ball (about $200 worth) of cocaine. Another young man was
convicted of several small deliveries and the jury directed that
his sentences be "stacked," giving him 361 years in
prison. Even first-time offenders were getting the max, when
they would have been eligible for probation. You rarely see these
kinds of sentences for minor drug crimes in big cities, so I
wanted to go talk to these rural jurors and see what it was,
in their minds, that made delivering small amounts of drugs morally
equivalent to committing murder.
Because that was the kind of sentences they were handing out.
When I got out there, however, I began to realize that this was
also a story of a corrupt narc and wrongful prosecutions. My
original story strongly suggested that most of the cases were
apparently fabricated, and events in Tulia in the years to come
eventually confirmed this idea, beyond a reasonable doubt in
most observers' minds.
What are the prospects for reform or serious rethinking
of the war on drugs?
Significant reforms have already taken place as a result of
the scandal in Tulia. The narc in Tulia worked for a regional
drug task force funded by a federal grant program known as the
Byrne Grant, which was overseen in Texas by the governor's office.
The Texas program was quite large, with 50 or so task forces
employing perhaps 750 agents, mostly in rural and suburban areas.
After the story broke, the governor announced a major reorganization
of the way drug task forces are operated in Texas, placing them
under the supervision of the state police, which immediately
announced changes in policies and procedures for the task forces,
bringing them more in line with state-police standards for hiring,
evidence procurement, etcetera. Some Texas task forces folded
rather than submit to state-police oversight. The Texas legislature
also passed bills requiring corroboration for cases made by confidential
informants and opening up police officers' state licensure files
to the public.
Additionally, in the years after Tulia became a national scandal,
the Byrne program has fallen out of favor somewhat in Washington.
As a result, funding has been drastically cut, leading to a scaling
back of the task-force program nationwide. The Heritage Foundation,
the conservative think tank, evaluated the Byrne program and
found it had made no discernible impact on drug crime. The implication
was that the program had become a form of pork, which I think
is essentially correct.