Pubdate: Fri, 21 Mar 2003
Source: Austin American-Statesman (TX)
Copyright: 2003 Austin American-Statesman
Author:  Adam Liptak


TULIA, Texas - Visitors to this small, poor community in the Texas 
panhandle, halfway between Amarillo and Lubbock, see a sign as they enter 
town. "The richest land and the finest people," it says.

The first proposition is plainly false. The second has been tested this 
week, as witness after witness testified to shortcomings in the character 
and methods of Thomas Coleman, a white, former undercover police officer 
here whose uncorroborated testimony supported drug charges against 46 
people, almost all of them black. They represented more than 10 percent of 
the small African-American population of this town of 5,000.

Coleman took the stand to defend himself on Thursday, in a hearing to 
collect evidence for a challenge filed by four men serving terms of 20 to 
90 years who are seeking to overturn their convictions.

Coleman admitted that "there were some mess-ups" in four other cases 
involving misidentifications and false reports that resulted in dismissals. 
And he expressed less than total certainty that the 22 people who remained 
in prison based on his testimony were all guilty.

Mitchell E. Zamoff, a lawyer with Hogan & Hartson in Washington, which is 
representing Christopher Jackson, one of the inmates, challenged Coleman 
with tenacious, staccato questions.

"But for your word, there is really no evidence that any of these alleged 
buys took place?" Zamoff asked.

"Yes," said Coleman.

Coleman testified that although most of the transactions were in public 
places, he did not wear a recording device, arrange for video surveillance, 
ask anyone to accompany him, ask anyone to observe the deals or fingerprint 
the plastic bags containing the drugs.

"You're not sure if everyone you locked up deserves to be in jail?" Zamoff 

"I'm pretty sure," Coleman said.

Coleman, dressed in a black leather jacket, was a talkative and animated 
witness. He gesticulated and gave long, seemingly stream-of-consciousness 

About 100 people, perhaps two-thirds of them black, came to see him 
testify. They murmured and chuckled at the testimony, giving the courtroom 
the feel of a low-decibel revival meeting.

One prosecutor, Mark Hocker, asked Judge Ron Chapman to admonish the audience.

"This is a courtroom and not a church," Hocker said, "and we don't need 
amens shouted out."

The judge complied.

Much of the audience's amusement was directed at Coleman's uncertainty in 
testifying on Thursday, in contrast to his confidence during the original 
trials in late 1999 and 2000.

In response to a question about his having quit a job as a jailer in 1995 
to avoid being served with a restraining notice from his ex-wife, he 
qualified his answers.

"I'm not even sure I'm telling you accurate," he said.

About another answer, he said, "Don't hold this to a T."

Sometimes he appeared evasive.

"Is there anything you weren't honest about?" Zamoff asked, referring to a 
job application.

"I don't know," Coleman responded. "Do you have the application?"

Coleman conceded that he had left a trail of bad debts after he resigned 
without notice from two earlier law enforcement positions, that he once 
owned an illegal machine gun with an obliterated serial number and that he 
has been subject to a court order to pay delinquent child support.

The four men challenging their convictions, all black, were arrested in a 
mass sweep in July 1999 and tried about six months later. They have 
exhausted their direct appeals but are asking the Texas courts to free them 
nonetheless, on the theory that their prosecutions were racially biased and 
that prosecutors failed to turn over important information about Coleman to 
their lawyers.

The men, Jason Williams, Freddie Brookins Jr., Joseph Moore and Jackson, 
watched intently from the jury box. They have worn leg shackles throughout 
the proceedings.

At the conclusion of the hearings, which are expected to continue at least 
another day, Chapman will make a recommendation to an appeals court as to 
whether the four should would receive new trials.

Coleman was at a loss on Thursday to explain discrepancies between time 
sheets he filled out and certified as true and the dates of some of the 
drug transactions.

"That shouldn't be possible, should it?" Zamoff asked.

"Nope," said Coleman.

In testimony Thursday morning, Sheriff Larry Stewart, who hired Coleman in 
January 1998, said he had made only limited inquiries about Coleman's 
background before doing so. He said he asked even fewer questions that 
summer, when he arrested Coleman on theft and abuse of office charges filed 
by another sheriff for whom Coleman had worked. Coleman was accused of 
stealing gasoline from the county for his personal use.

On Thursday, Coleman called those charges "bogus." But he ultimately paid 
for the gas and repaid about $7,000 in debts to various merchants in 
exchange for dismissal of the criminal charges. Lawyers for the inmates 
argued that the repayments amounted to an acknowledgment of guilt that 
warranted firing Coleman long before Tulia's black population was literally 
decimated by the arrests. They also maintained that defense lawyers should 
have been told about the charges.

Stewart testified that he had asked state authorities to seal Coleman's 
personnel file to protect his safety in the undercover operation.

Vanita Gupta, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, 
which represents two of the inmates, said the hearings had helped explain 
Coleman's motives.

"The Tulia drug stings transformed Tom Coleman from a zero to a hero," 
Gupta said. "He came into this and he couldn't get a law enforcement job 
and he left this as Lawman of the Year." The reference was to an award 
Coleman received from the state in 1999, not long after the arrests. "He 
had to make drug cases however he could," she said.

John Nation, a special prosecutor brought in to handle the four cases, 
acknowledged that Coleman "had a lot of baggage and he is certainly 
controversial." But, Nation said, Coleman "was a good and competent 
narcotics officer during the time he worked in Swisher County." Tulia is 
the county seat.

Mattie White leaned forward and listened hard as Coleman testified. Four of 
her children were arrested on Coleman's word. One of the cases, against 
Tonya White, unraveled when she was able to prove, through bank records, 
that she was in Oklahoma when Coleman said he bought cocaine from her. Her 
three other children were sentenced to 14, 25 and 60 years.

Asked what the hearings meant to her, she said, "The truth is coming out."

Michelle Williams, a 34-year-old mother of four, was released from prison 
in November, after serving three years of an eight-year sentence for 
selling cocaine to Coleman, whom she said she had never met before her 
arrest. She said the hearing here had stirred up emotions she has tried to 

"I hated the guy," she said. "In prison, I prayed and I prayed and I prayed 
and it went away. But now the anger is coming back."

Williams, who works in a factory that makes tortillas, was asked what the 
hearings might accomplish.

"That everybody can come home and put their lives back together," she 
answered. "We never had any problem in Tulia until this crook came in."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens