Pubdate: Tue, 15 Apr 2003
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2003 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Author: Thom Marshall


Let's nominate Tom Coleman for some special recognition because of the huge 
change in drug law enforcement that he is bringing about almost 

On Tuesday, the Texas House of Representatives voted to abolish all the 
regional narcotics task forces in the state. Hopefully, the Senate will 
follow suit and we can relegate to the history books a painful and 
embarrassing chapter of our state's drug law enforcement efforts.

Let's recognize Coleman for his pivotal role in this, even though he no 
longer does that kind of work and hopefully will never do it again.

He already got one award. He was named Texas Narcotics Control Program 
Lawman of the Year for the work that resulted in his 1999 Tulia drug bust.

He was held up as a sterling example of the kind of officer all task force 
cops should strive to be. Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, who later was 
elected to the U.S. Senate, handed Coleman that award.

Too loud to be ignored But pretty soon some questions started popping up 
about the 46 arrests and 38 convictions that resulted from Coleman's 
award-winning bust. Questions about his background. Questions about the 
testimony he gave in court. Questions that kept growing louder and louder 
as they were shouted again and again from the pages of newspapers and 
magazines across the country.

Questions that led to the announcement of a federal investigation and 
finally even caused Cornyn to announce an attorney general's investigation 
into the Tulia bust. Neither investigation has gone anywhere and both 
appear intended more as political ploys rather than actual probes. Even so, 
the investigation announcements point out what a major impact Coleman had.

A group of activists and volunteer lawyers who worked long and hard to set 
things right eventually managed to win an evidentiary hearing into four of 
the Tulia cases. The judge recommended to the Court of Criminal Appeals 
that, because Coleman's testimony was so thoroughly unreliable, not just 
the four cases under review, but all 38 convictions should be set aside. 
That includes all the people who were coerced into taking plea bargains.

Thirteen Tulia people are still serving time on the sentences they got 
because of Coleman's tainted testimony and they may not be released for 
several more weeks. Our high court judges still are trying to figure out 
how to undo what Coleman did without causing the entire justice system to 
topple over because of it.

Unplanned benefit of scandal Will Harrell, executive director of the 
American Civil Liberties Union of Texas in Austin, said Tuesday that 
Coleman "has done more to foster police accountability in this state than 
anyone in recent history."

Harrell called me shortly after the House voted to end the regional task 
force system, made up of 43 units throughout the state. He sounded happy. 
He has invested a lot of lobbying energy in this and other needed reforms 
that the Tulia scandal highlights.

The Tulia bust, Harrell often points out, is but one of many shameful task 
force operations conducted through the past 15 years. He has called the 
narcotics task forces "a failed experiment that have filled Texas prisons 
with nonviolent offenders, many of them African-American, and tainted Texas 
law enforcement with scandal."

We can never expect to know how many other task force undercover cops 
through the years have caused people to get convicted unjustly.

But we can try to see that Coleman gets all he deserves for conducting an 
operation so outrageous it could not be ignored or swept under the rug.
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