Pubdate: Fri, 25 Jul 2003
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2003 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst
Author: Thom Marshall
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


In addition to her scales and sword, our courthouse symbol Lady Justice
needs a watch, a sundial, a calendar -- some means of noting the passage of

Since "Tulia" became a household word across the country -- in households
where folks talk of justice issues -- Vanita Gupta has been bombarded by
letters and phone calls.

People ask her for help. They say they are caught in unjust situations much
like the victims of the infamous 1999 Tulia drug bust. They beseech Gupta to
come riding to their rescue, much like she rode into Tulia a couple of years

However, it is too soon to commit to another major project, she said.
Because, despite some major victories, that long-fought battle in the Texas
Panhandle is not yet over. Tulia might be compared to Iraq, where it looked
like the war was won but the shooting continues.

"We're still fighting to get final exonerations," Gupta said Thursday.

Moving a step closer She is the young New York lawyer with the NAACP Legal
Defense and Educational Fund who coordinated the efforts of volunteer
lawyers from about a dozen different law firms. This legal team from outside
Texas joined Amarillo lawyer Jeff Blackburn in a protracted battle against
the wrongful convictions of 38 people who were charged based on the
now-discredited work of a lone undercover agent, Tom Coleman.

Another step in the direction of final exonerations was made earlier this
week when the 7th Court of Appeals reversed the drug convictions of Cash
Love. He was the only victim of the Tulia drug bust whose cases were being
reviewed on direct appeal.

That reversal occurred Monday. Wednesday was the four-year anniversary of
the date of the drug bust arrests. And on Thursday afternoon, Love was still
in prison waiting for the paperwork that must be done before the state will
set him free.

For two years that appeals court sat on Love's case, Gupta said, but the
long-delayed overturning of his drug bust convictions is being celebrated as
an affirmation of retired state District Judge Ron Chapman's recommendation
that the convictions of all 38 Tulia bust victims be tossed.

Chapman made that recommendation back on April 1. Some of those convicted in
the Tulia bust already had done their time or were on probation or parole.
But 13 still were in prison, and it took until the middle of June for the
system to figure out some way to set 12 of them free. (Love chose to stick
with his direct appeal, which meant staying locked up pending its outcome.)

Working on a shortcut State Sen. John Whitmire got a bill passed to allow
Judge Chapman to release them on bond so they wouldn't have to remain in
prison while the Court of Criminal Appeals ponders and ponders over what to
do. People familiar with the appeals court say the process likely will
consume a couple of years or more.

But the courts may be out of the picture. Gov. Rick Perry, after long trying
to ignore the problem and sidestep all responsibility for setting it right,
finally got involved in mid-May by ordering the Board of Pardons and Paroles
to review the Tulia cases and recommend to him "whether a pardon,
commutation of sentence or other clemency action is appropriate and just."

Here it is the end of July and the board still hasn't finished reviewing the
cases. Gupta said hopes are high the review will be completed within the
next few weeks and the governor will issue pardons.

Then she can move along to the next project. Let's see -- she's 28 years old
now. If she can clean up situations like Tulia at an average rate of one
every two years, and if she works until she's 68, she can do 20.

That isn't a drop in the bucket. Gupta said the injustices that happened in
Tulia are happening nationally and being funded by the federal government
that pays for drug operations, too many of which may be compared to Tulia's.

She said that trying to fix all the Tulias one at a time wouldn't work.
She'd only fall further and further behind. So her goal is to persuade the
lawmakers in Washington to make changes that would end all the injustices in
one fell swoop.

And maybe she can also persuade them to strap a wristwatch on Lady Justice.
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