Pubdate: Mon, 16 Jun 2003
Source: Chicago Sun-Times (IL)
Copyright: 2003 The Sun-Times Co.
Author: Betsy Blaney
Bookmark: (Racial Issues)
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


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

''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.

Today, 12 African Americans 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 as 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.''

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. A third child was
paroled in January 2002.

''I thought, 'It's not going to ever happen,''' 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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