Pubdate: Fri, 29 Aug 2003
Source: Abilene Reporter-News (TX)
Copyright: 2003 Abilene Reporter-News
Author: Dan Thomasson
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)
Bookmark: (Racial Issues)
Bookmark: (Corruption - United States)


WASHINGTON -- Amid the increasing turmoil that surrounds the nation's
criminal justice system, from the Patriot Act to the debate over the
death penalty, few things in memory have shaken the faith in its basic
fairness as has the monumental travesty that took place in Tulia.

Even though Gov. Rick Perry has pardoned the 35 mostly black residents
of this small town of alleged drug dealings, the reverberations from
the injustices perpetrated by legal authorities will be felt for a
long time -- as a warning, we hope, of what can happen when the
process goes wrong.

One thing for certain: Someone owes these victims a pile of money for
their pain and suffering, and they are rightfully going to go after

For those unfamiliar with the story, a regional drug task force hired
an undercover agent and let him loose on the African-American
community in Tulia, a town of 5,000 in the Texas Panhandle. With no
substantiation, the agent then put together allegations and charges
that resulted in the indictment of 31 African-Americans and four
others and earned him "policeman of the year" honors in Texas.

More frightening than this agent's activities (he has been indicted
now for perjury) was the culpability of the task force officers,
prosecutors, judges and juries in this affair, all of whom should face
at least disciplinary action in addition to civil suits for not
stopping it in its tracks.

The investigator, Tom Coleman, never presented a shred of credible
evidence beyond his own word that those charged were guilty. No drugs,
large amounts of cash or weapons were found during a mass arrest in
1999. Coleman never taped or video recorded his alleged buys, and the
plastic bags containing the drugs he said he purchased from the
defendants were never dusted for fingerprints.

Incredibly, he said he wrote notes on his leg after making the alleged
buy from those he admitted referring to with a racial slur.

What kind of prosecutor accepts that kind of evidence? More
importantly, what kind of jurist would allow such a case to be tried
in front of him?

In this month of the 40th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King's
electrifying I Have a Dream speech, it is difficult to believe such a
miscarriage of justice still could be rooted in official racism. Have
we not passed this point? But what other explanation can there be for
this outrage perpetrated almost solely on the town's African-American

After watching some of those arrested receive incredibly long jail
terms, other defendants were intimidated into accepting plea bargains
for lesser terms. In June, the governor signed legislation that freed
on bail the 14 persons still in jail while courts were considering
their cases. His latest action supersedes that.

Sadly, the explanation for the regional task force's culpability in
this matter seems to be federal funds. The Texas Panhandle Regional
Narcotics Trafficking Task Force is a consortium of 26 counties
financed by the government. The more productive it is in drug
enforcement, the more money it receives. It's just that simple. So
those allegedly supervising Coleman gave him pretty much carte blanche
to make as many cases as possible by whatever methods, including, of
course, what turned out to be his specialty of choosing the most
vulnerable town residents and accusing them without evidence.

Rarely have the imperfections of our system of justice been so
glaringly revealed. It is a process that is too often overbalanced by
ambition and economic inequity and constitutional misunderstanding.
Those charged with its management are frequently there not out of a
commitment to fairness but for other far less noble motives.

The cause of civil rights needs constant vigilance and attention. With
the scientific ability to determine without question guilt or
innocence, for instance, there can be no reason to execute the wrong
person. Nor can there be an excuse to ignore the constitutional
imperative of beyond a reasonable doubt.

Much of the nation is now concerned about the encroachments of the
Patriot Act. It is good that these questions are being asked for, as
we have seen in this dusty Texas town, all sorts of things can go
wrong in overzealous pursuit and overreaction. The threat of terrorism
is nothing to scoff at, but it is proper to ask if there is a price to
preventing it that we should not pay lest we accomplish the
terrorists' agenda for them.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.
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