Pubdate: Fri, 05 Dec 2003
Source: Sojourners Magazine (US DC)
Copyright: 2003, Sojourners
Note: Sojourners is a Christian ministry.
Author: Alan Bean


Is justice delayed better than none at all?

On a July morning in 1999, 46 people-including more than 10 percent of the 
black population and a handful of whites in our tiny town of Tulia, 
Texas-were locked up for alleged drug offenses on the uncorroborated word 
of undercover agent Tom Coleman. Two weeks after the sting, a local 
editorial denounced the defendants as "scumbags." Offended by this rush to 
judgment, I shared my concerns with a Sunday school class. "They are 
scumbags," I was informed, "and they're all going to prison." When I 
learned that Coleman had been arrested on theft charges in the middle of 
his 18-month operation, my concern deepened.

Days after one of those arrested, an aging hog farmer, was sentenced to 90 
years, a ragtag collection of defendants, their families, and a handful of 
supporters from Tulia's white community came together. Calling ourselves 
Friends of Justice, we worked to expose a bogus law-enforcement operation. 
By fall 2000, a civil rights suit had been filed and the Department of 
Justice was conducting a full-scale investigation.

When the story went national, 500 other Tulia citizens responded to the 
negative publicity by crowding into the Swisher County Memorial Building 
for a rally in support of law enforcement officials. Most local support for 
the drug sting never flagged, even though no drugs or other evidence were 
found in any of the arrests, and some defendants had proof that they 
weren't even in town when they supposedly bought or sold drugs. A 
schoolteacher captured the local mood perfectly: "Any attack on the 
undercover investigation, the officers involved, and subsequent trials" was 
"an attack on our entire community."

"I have never seen a community rally and get this strong," Church of Christ 
pastor Trey Morgan told a reporter. A Pentecostal minister agreed. If the 
bleeding hearts in New York and Los Angeles wanted to coddle their drug 
dealers, that was their business.

TULIA'S WHITE religious community was particularly stung by accusations of 
racism. It wasn't the color of their skin that damned the defendants, they 
argued in a series of letters to the editor, it was the content of their 
character. "I'll admit to being prejudiced," a Church of Christ deacon 
boasted. "I'm prejudiced against people who refuse to work because they 
choose to live on welfare."

This March, after a week of evidentiary hearings, prosecutors finally 
admitted that Coleman was simply not credible under oath. Texas legislators 
passed an emergency bill freeing everyone who had been convicted on the 
basis of Coleman's uncorroborated word, and Gov. Rick Perry issued full 
pardons. Media emphasis shifted from racial prejudice to judicial fairness, 
and, like Rip Van Winkle, Tulia's religious establishment awakened to a 
radically changed world.

A Tulia grand jury has indicted Tom Coleman on three counts of aggravated 
perjury. County officials have refused to help District Attorney Terry 
McEachern fend off an ethics inquiry.

Perhaps more significant, funding for Tulia's drug rehabilitation center 
has been doubled. An ad hoc committee (including several black citizens 
impacted by the drug sting) is working on a new economic development 
strategy. The Tulia ministerial association is encouraging local businesses 
to hire sting defendants, and a multiracial citizens review committee has 
been established to hear complaints of official misconduct.

Civil suits have been filed against a long list of local officials, so we 
may wait forever for official acknowledgment of wrongdoing. But these other 
recent developments do signify a change of heart in the community. For the 
moment, that will suffice. -Alan Bean

Alan Bean is the director of Friends of Justice, a Tulia-based criminal 
justice reform organization. He is writing Taking out the Trash in Tulia, 
Texas, an insider's account of the aftermath of the Coleman sting.

A Lasting Sting. by Alan Bean. Sojourners Magazine, November-December 2003 
(Vol. 32, No. 6, pp. 18-19). Commentary.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens