Pubdate: Mon, 13 Oct 2003
Source: San Antonio Express-News (TX)
Copyright: 2003 San Antonio Express-News
Author: Cary Clack


AMARILLO -- The tiny town of Tulia, tucked in the Panhandle between 
Amarillo and Lubbock, was the site of an outrageous assault on the freedom 
of Americans.

But an adobe-style house, nearly hidden behind a graffiti-painted wall on 
16th Street in Amarillo, was the headquarters for the counterassault to 
challenge this abuse of power.

The building is the law office of Jeff Blackburn, a gravelly voiced, 
46-year-old attorney animated by the spirit of departed mentors such as 
Montgomery bus boycott leader E.D. Nixon and San Antonio lawyer and 
journalist Maury Maverick Jr.

"I'm a civil rights guy," Blackburn says. "I believe the drug war right now 
is the cutting edge of civil rights abuses in the country."

The abuses were stark in Tulia.

A quick recap of the events that changed the town's name from anonymity to 

An incompetent and corrupt lawman named Tom Coleman was hired by a 
Panhandle anti-drug force to conduct a one-man sting operation.

After 18 months it culminated with the July 23, 2000, bust of 46 people in 
Tulia, 39 of them black. Thirty-eight of those arrested were convicted and 

It didn't matter that Coleman produced no corroborating evidence of any kind.

Nor did it matter that he had a scandalous record as a law enforcement 
officer that earned him the contempt of fellow officers.

Last spring, Judge Ron Chapman called Coleman "the most devious, 
non-responsive law enforcement witness this court has witnessed in 25 years 
on the bench."

Coleman was indicted on multiple perjury charges. On Aug. 22, Gov. Rick 
Perry issued pardons to those arrested.

Blackburn, who headed the defense team that won the pardons, concedes that 
many of the defendants were prime targets for Coleman because of their 
"lifestyle difficulties."

"They were in the (drug) life, but they weren't dealing or selling 
anything," he says. "They were never guilty of what they were accused."

An ingenious thing about the Constitution is that it protects even people 
with lifestyle difficulties from being punished for crimes they didn't commit.

And then there were defendants such as Tanya White, who had no connection 
to drugs.

"If I ever had any reason to doubt the existence of a Supreme Being in the 
universe, I don't anymore," says Blackburn. "Because there were two women 
who by luck were not living in Tulia when the arrests came: Tanya White and 
Zuri Bossett."

Nine days before White was to go to trial, a bank slip was found that 
proved that she was in Oklahoma City when Coleman claimed he bought drugs 
from her.

"Once that dismissal happened, things really changed," Blackburn says. "The 
guy (Coleman) is obviously framing people. If he's framed her, he's 
probably done it with others.

"Tanya proved to be the symbol that we could use to sort of open the can of 
all these other cases."

Blackburn says the White case revealed what everyone already knew about 
Coleman and his superiors.

"We proved they were liars."

Wednesday: Targeted in Tulia.
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart