Pubdate: Wed, 02 Apr 2003
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2003 The New York Times Company
Author: Simon Romero, Adam Liptak


TULIA, Tex., April 1 -- Conceding that they had made a catastrophic mistake 
in relying solely on the uncorroborated testimony of an undercover officer, 
prosecutors moved today to overturn the convictions of 38 people, almost 
all of them black, who were caught in a series of drug arrests in 1999 that 
tore this town apart.

A judge agreed with the prosecutors, and defense lawyers, that the Texas 
courts should vacate every conviction arising from the drug sting, 
including those in which the defendants pleaded guilty.

The extraordinary turnabout followed hearings here last month in which the 
undercover officer, Thomas Coleman, and many other witnesses testified 
about his troubled law enforcement career, unorthodox methods, pervasive 
errors, combustible temperament and apparent racism.

But the drug prosecutions were fueled by more than one unreliable officer, 
defense lawyers said. The prosecutions were, these lawyers said, the 
consequence of poisonous small-town race relations, a misguided desire to 
claim victories at any cost in the war on drugs and a legal system in which 
poor defendants did not have a fighting chance against thin but confident 
testimony from a single police officer.

"It is established by all parties and approved by the court that Tom 
Coleman is simply not a credible witness under oath," Ron Chapman, a 
retired state court judge who presided over the hearings, said from the 
bench today. Judge Chapman said he would recommend that a higher court 
overturn the convictions of everyone convicted in the sting. In the 
meantime, the 16 people still in prison will remain there.

Roderique S. Hobson Jr., a lawyer in Lubbock who was recently brought in as 
a special prosecutor on the case, said, "What we've seen here is the 
beginning of a vindication of the system."

Throughout this town of 5,000 perched on the flatlands of the Texas 
panhandle between Amarillo and Lubbock, there were displays of surprise and 
gratification after today's developments. Outside the courthouse, Pattie 
Brookins, the mother of Freddie Brookins Jr., one of the four men 
challenging their convictions on drug charges in last month's hearings, 
could not stop weeping as she stood in front of the jail where her son was 
still being held.

"It's been a long time coming," Ms. Brookins said. "I guess this is what 
satisfaction feels like."

Swisher County, of which Tulia is the seat, also agreed to pay $250,000 to 
the 38 defendants. Defense lawyers said the money would be allocated based 
largely on how long the defendants spent in prison. In exchange, the 
defendants gave up the right to file civil suits against the county and its 
employees, including the sheriff here, Larry Stewart, and the original 
prosecutor, Terry D. McEachern. The agreement probably precludes suits 
against Mr. Coleman.

Forty-six people were arrested in the drug sweep, but several of the cases 
were dismissed as Mr. Coleman's evidence unraveled.

Seven of the 38 who were convicted based on his accusations went to trial, 
receiving sentences of at least 20 years. Fourteen other people received 
prison sentences after pleading guilty. Twelve pleaded guilty and were 
sentenced to probation or had earlier probation revoked. Two people pleaded 
guilty to misdemeanors and were fined.

Three had cases dismissed but had probation revoked in other counties while 
the Tulia charges were pending.

Defense lawyers said they might pursue suits against others, including the 
Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force, the federally financed 
consortium of 26 Texas counties that helped hire and supervise Mr. Coleman.

Judge Chapman granted a request by Mr. McEachern and two other local 
prosecutors that they be allowed to withdraw from the cases based on what 
he described as Mr. Coleman's apparent perjury. Mr. Hobson, the new special 
prosecutor, made a similar request, but Judge Chapman asked him to continue 
to represent the state in the cases.

Sheriff Stewart, who hired Mr. Coleman in January 1998 as an undercover 
officer, did not allow reporters to visit the four inmates in the county 
jail today but in telephone interviews the men reflected on their 
experience with Swisher County's legal system.

None of the four men said that they planned to stay in Tulia, which has a 
small African-American population of about 400.

Joseph Moore, 60, a hog farmer who Mr. Coleman said was the kingpin of 
cocaine trafficking in Tulia, said he hoped to move to a small town nearby 
in New Mexico or Oklahoma where he hoped to get his health in order.

"The last 45 months in prison have been hell for me," Mr. Moore said. "My 
diabetes started to act up and I almost died in jail. I don't know if 
anyone can understand what it means to almost die alone, incarcerated by 

Christopher Jackson, who turns 31 on Wednesday, said he hoped to pass a 
high school graduation equivalency test and planned to start his own 
welding business. "This is a very blessed moment," Mr. Jackson said.

Jason Williams, 24, said he was planning to study business management to 
eventually open his own electronics store. "I want to make this dusty 
little town into just a memory," Mr. Williams said.

Sheriff Stewart said in a statement, "The agreement reached among the 
parties involved is not about guilt or innocence but is intended to end the 
controversy that surrounds these cases."

For a small community that had nearly a tenth of its black population 
incarcerated on drug-related charges, the drug sting masterminded by Mr. 
Coleman has left an enduring mark.

Tynisha Winkfield, interviewed at a Pizza Hut restaurant where people in 
the courtroom repaired to celebrate the settlement over lunch, said her 
boyfriend, Jerrod Ervine, and uncle, Billie Wafer, had been jailed and 
subsequently released as a result of the sting.

Another uncle, Kenneth Powell, is one of 16 people still in prison because 
of the sting or as a result of probation violations related to drug charges 
originating from Mr. Coleman's undercover operation.

"Kids have lost parents and families have lost money because of this," said 
Ms. Winkfield, who works as a bartender at the Country Club, a bar on the 
outskirts of this dry town whose clientele is entirely white.

Lawyers for the defendants, from Amarillo, New York and Washington, 
expressed satisfaction at today's developments and dismay at how long the 
process had taken. "It came later than it should have come, but at least it 
came," said Mitchell E. Zamoff, a lawyer with Hogan & Hartson in 
Washington. That firm and Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, also in Washington, 
represented two of the defendants. Others were represented by the NAACP 
Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Jeff Blackburn, a lawyer in Amarillo.

Mr. Coleman testified last month that although most of the supposed drug 
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. He 
worked alone and did not tape record his drug buys. No drugs, weapons or 
large sums of cash were found when 46 people, more than 10 percent of 
Tulia's black population, were arrested early in the morning on July 23, 1999.

Mr. Coleman also testified that he made routine use of the most charged of 
racial epithets.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's highest court for criminal 
matters, is not required to accept the parties' request or Judge Chapman's 

When the appeals court ordered last month's hearings, it indicated that 
much will turn on whether there was other evidence of guilt and whether 
defense lawyers were told enough about Mr. Coleman by prosecutors to try to 
discredit his testimony at their client's trials in late 1999 and early 2000.

Defense lawyers will spend the next few weeks gathering further information 
on those points. They will submit the information, as proposed findings of 
fact, to Judge Chapman for his consideration and approval. The findings 
will serve as the basis for Judge Chapman's recommendation to the appeals 

Legal experts cautioned that the appeals court can be unpredictable and 
does not always accept even requests joined in by all parties.

The appeals court could reject Judge Chapman's recommendation in some or 
all of the cases, overturn the convictions outright or order new trials. 
But given their concessions about Mr. Coleman today, prosecutors are 
unlikely to pursue retrials even if the appeals court allows them.

Mr. Coleman, who was not at the courthouse today, could not be reached for 
comment. His phone number is unlisted. Mr. McEachern, the original 
prosecutor, did not respond to a message seeking comment.

At a small housing project behind the Sales Barn, a feedlot where auctions 
of livestock from surrounding ranches are held each week, talk about 
financial awards or the legal complexities of the settlement seemed far 
away. Tina S. Yarlrough, a 38-year-old housekeeper, wondered if life in 
Tulia could get back to normal.

"It used to be pretty calm around here," Ms. Yarlrough said as she sat on 
her porch swapping jokes with her neighbors. "Then it got to the point 
where you couldn't have a boyfriend or a girlfriend with so many people 
locked up. The only ones left were your kinfolk."
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