Pubdate: Thu, 08 May 2003
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2003 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Author: Thom Marshall


Please join in congratulating state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, for 
finally filing a bill on Thursday to free the 13 people from Tulia.

These men and women have been locked up for four years.

"It is clear to me," Whitmire said in the press release announcing Senate 
Bill 1948, "that the only reasonable alternative at this point is to 
release these individuals."

Being chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee provides Whitmire 
with some credentials for taking a leadership position in dealing with the 
Tulia scandal.

Yet it is a problem that has too long gone without any leadership. Over 
much of the past four years it has been growing clearer and clearer to more 
and more of us that our justice system needs some serious overhauling.

Whitmire's move came one day after the U.S. House Judiciary Committee 
announced it will investigate the 1999 drug bust that resulted in 38 people 
being convicted on the word of a lone undercover cop whose work and word 
have since been discredited and who is now charged with perjury.

Regrets not filing sooner It is something of a horse race now, to see 
whether the Tulia 13 will be sprung by an act of the Legislature or by the 
state's Court of Criminal Appeals, where documents have been filed calling 
for their release.

Whitmire said Thursday that he feels a little bit of regret that he didn't 
introduce this bill "about three months ago." But, he said, he kept 
thinking the courts would do something to free the Tulia 13. Also, he 
didn't know if he could have gotten such a bill through any sooner.

"It's a pretty unusual step for the Legislature to get involved," he said.

I asked Whitmire whether, now that he got his feet wet with this Tulia 
scandal, he might wade into the Houston Police Department crime lab problem 
and figure out some way to identify and release any people who were 
wrongfully convicted on flawed evidence or tainted testimony.

Some way that wouldn't take four years.

"That would be a logical next step," he said.

But then he went on to explain in some detail why he doesn't yet know how 
to go about taking that step.

Whitmire said his committee will hear what he calls the "Bill to End Tulia 
Injustice" on Monday morning, and he'll take it to the whole Senate on 
Wednesday. Then it'll go to the House. If it passes, and if the governor 
signs it, Whitmire said it would be about 30 more days before the 13 could 
be freed.

There has been a great deal more official interest in Tulia since retired 
state District Judge Ron Chapman of Dallas was appointed to examine the 
evidence in four of the convictions. Several weeks ago he found the 
uncorroborated testimony of undercover cop Tom Coleman to be so completely 
unreliable that he recommended all 38 cases be overturned. Not long after 
that evidentiary hearing concluded, Coleman was indicted by a Swisher 
County Grand Jury on three counts of perjury.

Only reasonable thing to do Gary Gardner said that following the scandal 
has been like watching a balloon get bigger and bigger and wondering when 
it's going to pop.

The 57-year-old farmer and crop-duster in Swisher County is one of the very 
first people it became clear to that the only reasonable and just thing to 
do was release Coleman's victims.

After Joe Moore was sentenced to 90 years, Gardner really started to work: 
"I just said, 'That ain't going to happen.' "

And so he spent months studying law books and filling file cabinets with 
research and writing a writ for Moore. While it wasn't the sort of polished 
writ a lawyer would write, it told the Tulia drug bust story effectively, 
and the corps of volunteer big-city lawyers who eventually came to Tulia to 
help set things right drew heavily from the writ he wrote.

What a long trail awinding it has been from Gardner's writ to Whitmire's bill.

I called the governor's press office to ask whether he would sign the bill 
if it makes it to his desk. Three times I left messages. Nobody returned 
the calls by deadline time.

The governor's office has been too quiet on Tulia.

For four years.
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