Pubdate: Sun, 30 Mar 2003
Source: Austin American-Statesman (TX)
Copyright: 2003 Austin American-Statesman
Author:  Alberta Phillips
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)
Bookmark: (Perjury)
Bookmark: (Racial Issues)


Someone needs to liberate the Texas justice system.

In Tulia and in Houston, we are witnessing police and prosecutorial tactics 
worthy of Iran or North Korea. President Bush has rightly targeted those 
countries for their oppressive regimes and for their human rights 
violations. Yet in his home state, Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney General 
Greg Abbott continue to turn a blind eye to a regime of law enforcement 
officials who have lied, slanted evidence and suppressed vital facts to win 

Despite mounting evidence that Houston Police Department crime lab 
technicians perjured themselves or acted with gross incompetence to help 
prosecutors secure guilty verdicts, Perry continues to say Texas' justice 
system is just fine. In Tulia, a special judge is hearing evidence 
detailing how African American residents were intimidated, humiliated and 
railroaded by local law enforcement officials into drug trafficking 
charges. You'd think that Abbott, who presented himself during the 2002 
campaign as the people's chief lawyer and enforcer of the Constitution, 
would have something to say about Tulia and Houston. But Abbott has chosen 
to look the other way.

Indeed, it took a national civil rights organization - the NAACP Legal 
Defense and Educational Fund - and New York Times columnist Bob Herbert to 
unearth the truth in Tulia.

Neither Abbott nor Perry have supported a temporary halt of executions of 
people who were convicted by shoddy DNA evidence from the Houston lab. 
Already, one person wrongly convicted of raping a woman has been freed. 
Josiah Sutton was lucky. A retest of DNA evidence by a private lab proved 
Sutton was innocent. But others won't be so lucky, given the extent of the 
problems in the Houston lab.

In some cases, lab employees used the entire DNA sample, leaving none for 
defense lawyers seeking to clear their clients. For years a roof leaked 
like a sieve, contaminating DNA evidence. Samples were mixed up. Even so, 
crime lab employees vouched for evidence and testified under oath as to 
their conclusions. At least 17 people were sent to death row and another 43 
were imprisoned based on DNA from the lab.

In Tulia, dozens of blacks were arrested, and many were sentenced to 20 
years to 90 years in prison based on the uncorroborated testimony of Tom 
Coleman, who in 1999 worked as an undercover police officer in Swisher County.

This month, Coleman's untraditional tactics went under scrutiny at new 
hearings aimed at determining whether blacks were convicted solely on the 
word of Coleman and if Swisher County prosecutors hid key facts about 
Coleman's spotty law enforcement background. Coleman's ex-wife said in a 
sworn statement that he carried a Ku Klux Klan membership card in his 
wallet. Coleman denied that.

Under questioning, Coleman first defended his work, but later admitted 
there were discrepancies in some cases, including one that was tossed out 
because the black woman proved she was in Oklahoma at the time Coleman said 
he bought drugs from her.

"There are some mess-ups in four cases," Coleman testified.

He admitted under oath that he routinely referred to black people as 
"niggers," and had no video or audiotape or witnesses to corroborate his 
drug buys.

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

"Yes," Coleman replied.

When asked if everyone he locked up deserved to be in prison, Coleman 
responded: "I'm pretty sure."

Those admissions are shocking coming from a sworn officer of the law. But 
Coleman never could have gotten away with his persecution of blacks in 
Tulia without cooperation from prosecutors, the sheriff or white jurors who 
acted on Coleman's bizarre tales.

Last week, we saw an outraged Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld denounce 
Iraqis for violating Geneva Conventions rules against humiliating prisoners 
of war by interrogating captured American troops on television.

No such protections were afforded Tulia residents when Bush was governor. 
In 1999, police roused 10 percent of Tulia's black residents from their 
beds, refusing some permission to dress before parading them in front of 
television cameras. One man was clad in his underpants.

So it is disheartening to see due process trampled in Tulia and Houston, to 
watch our defenders of justice manipulate outcomes. Isn't that similar to 
the way things are done in Iran and North Korea?

In denying these truths about Texas justice, Perry and Abbott are like the 
citizens of fictitious Oz who wore green glasses so that all in the Emerald 
City would appear as green and rich as its name. Removing those spectacles 
meant seeing the city's true colors. Justice demands that Perry and Abbott 
not only seek truth, but confront it.
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