Pubdate: Tue, 26 Aug 2003
Source: Corpus Christi Caller-Times (TX)
Copyright: 2003 Corpus Christi Caller-Times
Author: Dan Thomasson
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


Amidst 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 the
monumental travesty that took place in Tulia, Texas.

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 -
hopefully as a warning of what can happen when the process goes wrong.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it is simply that 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 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 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 their tracks.

The investigator, one Tom Coleman, never presented a shred of 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 judge 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 that 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 community?

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 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
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.

Much of the nation is 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, 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 Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Josh