Pubdate: Wed, 02 Apr 2003
Source: Associated Press (Wire)
Copyright: 2003 Associated Press


TULIA, Texas (AP) - Prosecutors said 38 defendants arrested in a 
controversial 1999 drug sting won't be retried after a judge ruled their 
convictions were based on questionable testimony from a single undercover 
agent accused of racial prejudice.

Hours after retired state district Judge Ron Chapman urged the Texas Court 
of Criminal Appeals to grant new trials for the defendants, a special 
prosecutor vowed Tuesday to dismiss the cases if they were sent back.

"We'll dismiss them," said Rod Hobson, a special prosecutor assigned to the 
case that has spurred probes by the Justice Department and the Texas 
attorney general. "It would be foolish for us to go forward."

The cases involved an 18-month undercover investigation by former sheriff's 
officer Tom Coleman. Most of the defendants he arrested in this 
predominantly white Texas Panhandle town were black.

Their arrests on charges of possessing and selling cocaine hinged on 
Coleman's testimony. He worked alone and used no audio or video surveillance.

But no drugs were ever found during the arrests and little or no 
corroborating evidence was introduced at trial. The Texas American Civil 
Liberties Union suggested discrimination was behind the arrests and that 
they were intended to eliminate Tulia's black population. Coleman is white.

The appeals court had ordered a hearing to review evidence against four of 
the defendants to determine if the men were convicted solely on Coleman's 
word and whether prosecutors failed to turn over information from Coleman's 
background that may have cast doubt on his testimony.

"It is stipulated by all parties and approved by the court that Tom Coleman 
is simply not a credible witness under oath," Chapman announced in the 
Swisher County courtroom Tuesday.

Jeff Blackburn, an attorney representing two of the four men whose arrests 
were examined in the hearing, predicted Chapman's recommendation would 
carry considerable weight with the appellate court.

"This is wonderful news, though nothing is final as of yet," said Vanita 
Gupta, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. "But we 
are very pleased that Tom Coleman's word can't be the basis of any standing 

Mattie White, who had four children arrested by Coleman, was ecstatic. 
"That's the best step I ever heard," she said. "We've been praying for this 
for four years, and we haven't ever given up."

Swisher County commissioners unanimously approved a $250,000 payment to the 
defendants. The amount will be distributed based on how much time each 
person was imprisoned, defense attorney Ted Killory told the commissioners.

In all, 46 people were arrested, 39 of them black, during Coleman's 
undercover sting. Thirteen are still in prison and others served time or 
were sentenced to probation.

Coleman was the main witness during the hearing, and testified that he 
stood by his investigations. He blamed work-related problems on marital 
trouble and denied allegations that he was a thief and a liar, but 
contradicted himself several times on the stand.

Coleman came to Tulia, midway between Lubbock and Amarillo, in late 1997. 
He had been a Pecos police officer and Cochran County sheriff's deputy, 
though he left that job in 1996 after he was charged with theft and abuse 
of power; those charges were dropped after he paid nearly $7,000 in 

He worked as a welder before being hired in Tulia in 1998 as an undercover 
drug agent for the Swisher County Sheriff's Department.

On July 23, 1999, the suspects Coleman identified were pulled from their 
beds and paraded, still in their nightclothes, across the courthouse lawn 
in front of television cameras. The Texas Narcotic Control Program later 
named Coleman "Outstanding Lawman of the Year."

One of his supervisors with the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking 
Task Force, Lt. Michael Amos, testified that Coleman had "an exceptional 
talent at being an undercover officer."

But Amos acknowledged that Coleman's previous employers had told his staff 
Coleman was unprofessional, needed constant supervision, was a discipline 
problem and tended to run to his mother for help.

Coleman no longer works in law enforcement or for Swisher County.

Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart said that the judge's recommendation 
helps bring closure to years of dispute. It was still unknown when the 
appeals court will issue its ruling on Chapman's recommendation.

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