Pubdate: Tue, 04 Feb 2003
Source: Cincinnati Enquirer (OH)
Copyright: 2003 The Cincinnati Enquirer
Author: Betsy Blaney, Associated Press


Officer Accused of Racial Prejudice

TULTA~ Texas - The drug con-victions of 38 mostly black defen-dants from a 
farm town in the Texas Panhandle should be thrown out because they were 
based on ques-tionable testimony from a single undercover agent accused of 
racial prejudice, a judge said Tuesday.

Retired state district Judge Ron Chapman urged the Texas Court of Criminal 
Appeals to grant new trials to everyone convicted in the case that has 
prompted investiga-tions by the Justice Department and Texas attorney general.

"It is stipulated by all parties and approved by the court that Tom Coleman 
is simply not a credible 'witness under oath," Chapman said of the agent.

The case involved 1999 cocaine busts in this predominantly white town of 
5,000 people. Coleman, 43, claimed he bought drugs from the defendants 
during an 18-month investigation in which 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 intro-duced at trial. The Texas American Civil 
Liberties Union suggested discrimination was behind the arrests, intended 
to cleanse Tulia of its black population. Coleman is white.

Coleman, who had been due to resume testimony at the hearing Tuesday, was 
not in the courthouse when the judge announced his recommendation.

Coleman came to Tulia, midway between Lubbock and Amarillo, in late 1997. 
He was a Texas Ranger's son and had been a Pecos police of-ficer and 
Cochran County sheriffs deputy, though he left that job in 1996 under 
questionable circum-stances.

On July 23, 1999, a drug task force pulled suspects from their beds and 
paraded them, still in their nightclothes, across the courthouse lawn in 
front of televi-sion cameras. Coleman took great pride in the bust.

"I walked in there with "police" written across my vest and pulled off my 
mask and they just stared at me with their mouths open," he told the 
Amarillo Globe-News. "A lot of them just kept saying, 'I can't believe 
you're a cop. No way you're a cop.' It was just perfect."

In all, 46 people were arrested, 39 of them black. Thirteen are still in 
prison and others served time or were sentenced to probation. Seven were 
convicted; 26 en-tered pleas and got probation or prison terms; two pleaded 
guilty to misdemeanors and were fined, cases against 10 were dismissed and 
the disposition of one could not immediately be determined.

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

Law enforcement witnesses testified that he regularly used a racial epithet 
and had disciplinary problems. Coleman said the epithet was a greeting that 
be and his friends used.
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