Pubdate: Sun, 15 Jun 2003
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2003 The Washington Post Company
Author: Betsy Blaney


TULIA, Texas - Thirteen people imprisoned on the testimony of a discredited 
undercover officer were to be released Monday, nearly four years after they 
and dozens of other residents - most of them black - were arrested on drug 

"I'm so happy for them," said Billy Wafer, one of the 46 arrested in the 
1999 sweep that capped an 18-month undercover operation. "It's been a long 
time coming but it's finally here."

Wafer wasn't charged; he had an alibi and his case was dismissed.

But 38 others were convicted on the uncorroborated word of undercover drug 
agent Tom Coleman - now under indictment on perjury charges - or they 
accepted plea agreements out of fear of lengthy prison terms.

Civil rights advocates have called the arrests racially motivated. Of the 
46 arrested in the small Panhandle town, 39 were black. Coleman is white.

Coleman claimed he bought drugs from the defendants, but he worked alone 
and used no audio or video surveillance. No drugs were ever found during 
the arrests, and little or no corroborating evidence was introduced in court.

On Monday, 12 blacks and one Hispanic were to appear before State District 
Judge Ron Chapman, who was expected to free them on personal recognizance 
bonds while their cases are on appeal. Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill June 2 
allowing for the releases; it could take as long two years for the Texas 
Court of Criminal Appeals to rule on their cases.

Chapman previously presided over hearings for four of the defendants and 
said Coleman was "simply not a credible witness under oath."

The judge recommended that the 38 convictions be overturned and new trials 
ordered, but a special prosecutor has said there will be no new trials.

Coleman, a contract agent for the Panhandle Regional Drug Task Force, was 
indicted in April on three charges of aggravated perjury stemming from his 
testimony during the hearings Chapman oversaw. The district attorney who 
prosecuted many of the cases, Terry McEachern, has denied wrongdoing.

A 14th defendant who was included in the governor's bill is not eligible 
for bail because his case is still pending on direct appeal, said Vanita 
Gupta, assistant counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Gupta, one of many attorneys involved in the cases, said she was "overjoyed 
and relieved" that the defendants who were "ripped from their families" 
finally will be free.

"It is incredible that all three branches of the Texas government have 
recognized the need for action to rectify the injustice that took place in 
Tulia," Gupta said. "But until these individuals receive full and complete 
relief, whether through a pardon or an overturning of their convictions, 
this matter is not resolved."

Mattie White is the mother of two of those being released: Kareem White, 
27, sentenced to 60 years in prison, and her 26-year-old daughter, Kizzie, 
sentenced to 25 years. A third child, Donnie White, was paroled in January 

"I thought, 'It's not going to ever happen,'" Mattie White said. "I would 
go off and cry to myself. But with (my children's) prayers and everybody 
else's, I just caught on to it and started believing they would (get out)."
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