Pubdate: Sat, 30 Sep 2000
Source: Ft. Worth Star-Telegram (TX)
Copyright: 2000 Star-Telegram, Fort Worth, Texas
Author: John Moritz

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AUSTIN -- Lawanda Smith and Gerrod Ervine say they were singled out for
prosecution because they are black.

Chandra Vancleave says she was targeted in the same drug sweep last year in
the Panhandle town of Tulia because she's white -- and engaged to a black man.

"There is so much racism out there, it's unbelievable," said Vancleave, 21,
who was part of a 40-person demonstration on the Capitol steps at noon Friday.

"I have been called every name you can think of because I lived with a
black guy."

Vancleave, who paid a $2,000 fine for drug possession, and the others made
the seven-hour bus trip to protest a July 1999 undercover operation that
led to the arrest of almost 10 percent of Tulia's African-American
population and a handful of whites who have ties to the black community.

The Swisher County district attorney and other authorities have said that
race played no part in the action, but the American Civil Liberties Union
on Friday filed a federal lawsuit in Amarillo accusing law enforcement
officers of civil-rights violations. The suit names District Attorney Terry
McEachern, Sheriff Larry Stewart and undercover agent Thomas Coleman in
addition to the county itself.

The suit was filed on behalf of black Tulia resident Yul Bryant, who spent
seven months in jail before the charge against him was dropped and he was
released, said Jeff Blackburn, an ACLU lawyer. The suit seeks $1 million in
actual damages and $1 million in punitive damages.

The undercover operation was prompted by numerous complaints about the use
of drugs in the community, officials have said. For example, people were
concerned when a 1994 survey found that a number of high school students
were using drugs.

Many of the people protesting in Austin acknowledged that the rural farming
and ranching community of about 5,000 is not drug-free. But they object to
the sweep that resulted in 45 people -- 32 of them African-American --
being indicted.

The arrests followed an 18-month undercover operation by a former sheriff's
deputy from a nearby county who had befriended people in Tulia's black
community, according to court testimony and news accounts.

The arrests were made in a sweep conducted by five state, county and local
law enforcement agencies, including the Tulia Police Department. Afterward,
prisoners overflowed the jail, which already was filled to capacity. Some
of the drug-sweep prisoners had to be transferred to jails in neighboring
counties. Boarding the suspects, and then trying them, strained the
county's financial resources, leading to a 5.8 percent tax increase.

Smith, a 25-year-old mother of two, said she pleaded no contest to a charge
of delivery of cocaine to avoid a long prison sentence, although she said
she was not guilty. She received three years deferred adjudication, a form
of probation in which the charge will not become part of a permanent record
if she fulfills the terms set by the court.

"The people who went to trial were sent to the penitentiary. I didn't want
to take that chance," said Smith, who like the others in her group was
wearing a black T-shirt with the message "Friend of Justice" on the front
and "Do Justice, Love Mercy and Walk Humbly" on the back.

"I've got two babies of my own, and I take care of five others who belong
to the people who went to the penitentiary," she said.

McEachern, who was in court Friday and unavailable for comment, told the
`Star-Telegram in the spring that he was confident that justice was served
in the arrests and prosecutions. He rejected assertions that race played a

"The public pays me to prosecute criminals, and it doesn't make any
difference to me if they are black, white, Asian, pink, purple or green,"
he said in a report published May 14. "Everyone has their reasons, but I
don't care about their reasons. If they commit a crime, they have to be

The sheriff and the undercover officer did not return calls Friday.

Ervine, 18, said he served eight months in jail between his arrest and the
time he pleaded guilty to charges of possessing cocaine with intent to
deliver. He received an additional 90 days in jail and 10 years probation.

"I can't stand here and say nobody in the town was selling drugs," he said.
"There are drugs in every town. But there is no way there are `that' many
people selling drugs in Tulia."

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