Pubdate: Wed, 02 Apr 2003
Source: Tampa Tribune (FL)
Section: Nation/World
Copyright: 2003, The Tribune Co.
Note: Limit LTEs to 150 words
Author: Simon Romero and Adam Liptak, New York Times
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


Unreliable Testimony From Officer Is Cited

TULIA, Texas - Prosecutors, saying they made a catastrophic mistake in 
relying solely on the uncorroborated testimony of a dubious undercover 
officer in a 1999 drug sweep, moved Tuesday to overturn the convictions of 
38 people, almost all of them black, who were caught in the arrests that 
tore this town apart.

A judge agreed with the prosecutors, and defense attorneys, 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 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 attorneys said. The prosecutions were, attorneys 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," said Ron Chapman, a 
retired state court judge who presided over the hearings Tuesday. 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 halfway between Amarillo and Lubbock, there were displays of 
surprise and gratification after Tuesday'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," Brookins said. "I guess this is what 
satisfaction feels like."

Swisher County also agreed to pay $250,000 to the 38 defendants. Defense 
attorneys said the money will 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 Coleman, as well.

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

Seven of the 38 people who were convicted based on his evidence 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 

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

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