Pubdate: Mon, 17 Mar 2003
Source: Austin American-Statesman (TX)
Copyright: 2003 Austin American-Statesman
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


Today, the eyes of the nation will be on Tulia, the tiny town in the
Texas Panhandle that gained fame for arresting 10 percent of its
African American population on specious drug trafficking charges.

It's been more than three years since those notorious drug busts in
1999. During that time, the public has learned, mostly from New York
Times columnist Bob Herbert, about the African Americans in Tulia who
were arrested and convicted on the uncorroborated testimony of one
investigating officer, Tom Coleman.

The arrests are controversial and highly suspect because no drugs,
money or weapons were found. It is incredible that a district attorney
would vigorously prosecute people based on Coleman's dubious
testimony, which was based on a slipshod investigation that sprouted
from a spotty law enforcement record. It's equally hard to believe
that a jury would convict based on that testimony. Yet, it did.

It's an all-too familiar story: black defendants, all-white jury,
overzealous prosecutor, guilty verdicts.

Events in Tulia prompted the Legislature in 2001 to pass a bill that
requires corroboration of testimony provided by informants. But
lawmakers must go further this time around by setting that same
standard for law enforcement officers. Senate Bill 515 by Chuy
Hinojosa, D-McAllen, would do that. The current law would not have
prevented the Tulia tragedy because Coleman wasn't an informant, but
an officer working under cover.

Defendants were arrested and convicted on the uncorroborated,
unsubstantiated testimony of the officer and assessed prison sentences
that range from 20 years to 90 years. After the first harsh sentences
were handed down, the remaining defendants quickly began agreeing to
plead guilty in return for leniency.

Today's court-ordered evidentiary hearing is for four men who remain
in prison: Jason Jerome Williams, Christopher Eugene Jackson, Freddie
Brookins Jr. and Joe Moore. Their convictions were upheld on appeals,
but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals last year asked the trial
court for clarification on whether the men were convicted solely on
the word of Coleman.

The appeals court also wants to know whether the state failed to turn
over information from Coleman's background that may have impeached his

It's been a long time coming, but the four Tulia residents finally
will get a fair day in court. The judge who presided over almost all
of the 46 defendants' cases has rightly recused himself. Forty of the
people arrested are black, three others are Hispanic and the remaining
three had marital or social ties to Tulia's black community. Among
those who will be called to testify are Coleman and Swisher County
District Attorney Terry McEachern.

These evidentiary hearings are important in unearthing the truth about
Tulia. For his efforts busting black Tulia residents, Coleman received
the state's "Lawman of the Year " award. Texas can't close the chapter
on Tulia until the full truth is known, no matter how painful or
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