Pubdate: Thu, 19 Jun 2003
Source: Austin American-Statesman (TX)
Copyright: 2003 Austin American-Statesman
Author: Betsy Blaney


Associated Press

TULIA -- Willie Hall savored sausage and eggs just the way he likes them 
Tuesday morning after a good night's sleep at home for the first time in years.

"It felt different than lying in a bunk, where the mattresses are hard. 
Last night was soft," Hall said. The breakfast "was a big treat. It's so 
good to be home."

Hall, 40, was one of 12 people released on bail Monday while questions 
about their drug convictions -- based solely on the testimony of 
now-indicted white undercover officer Thomas Coleman -- are reviewed by the 
Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the state Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Forty-six people, 39 of them black, in the tiny Panhandle town of Tulia 
were arrested and accused of possessing cocaine after an 18-month 
undercover operation that Coleman carried out alone. He used no audio or 
video surveillance, and no drugs or large sums of money were found during 
the arrests.

Thirty-eight people were convicted or accepted plea bargains for fear that 
they would get long prison sentences. Of the other eight, seven cases were 
dismissed, and one person died before a trial could begin. Some of those 
convicted have already served their sentences.

Some of those who were released Monday enjoyed long bubble baths, making 
good use of bags of toiletries their lawyers brought each of them. There 
were conversations with relatives while relaxing in familiar easy chairs 
and a softball game with family and friends. Those whose driver's licenses 
were still valid were driving again. All were things robbed from them while 
they spent as many as four years in prison.

Jason Jerome Williams, 24, hopped behind the wheel of a burgundy sedan, 
rolled down the windows, cranked up the stereo a little and drove off from 
a meeting with lawyers to pick up a friend. The freedom is "lovely," he 
said over the music.

"It was great to wake up with my nieces and nephews all around," he said. 
"It just felt good."

One defendant, Calvin Klein, spent time planning a trip to Tennessee to 
visit relatives, something he checked with his lawyer to make sure it was 
OK to do.

Klein, the lone white among those released, said being home is great, but 
there are some aftereffects that make expressing his feelings difficult.

"I can't even talk to people yet," said Klein, 23. "I've been locked up so 
long I don't know how to talk to people."

Some Tulia residents were not as joyous about the releases.

"I have my opinions, but it's not going to make any difference," said 
Barbara Morgan, who runs an antique store on the square across from the 
Swisher County Courthouse, where the initial trials were held. She declined 
to elaborate, saying instead, "I have to live here."

And although she believes that Sheriff Larry Stewart does a good job 
overall, Morgan said he could have prevented the entire controversy.

"They should have done a better job checking Coleman's background," she 
said. "If it had been handled right in the beginning, none of this would 
have happened."

Coleman, 43, was indicted in April on three perjury charges related to 
testimony he gave during evidentiary hearings in March involving four of 
the cases.

A call seeking comment from Coleman's lawyer, Cindy Ermatinger in 
Waxahachie, was not returned.

Monday's release of 11 men and a woman came while the appeals court is 
considering a recommendation from retired state District Judge Ron Chapman 
that all the convictions be overturned. It could take as long as two years 
for the court to rule. A special prosecutor has said that he will dismiss 
all charges if the court orders new trials.

The release came as a result of a bill passed by the Legislature in May and 
signed by Gov. Rick Perry on June 2.

The Board of Pardons and Paroles also can clear the released defendants' 

"Now we're hopeful this can be done expeditiously," said Vanita Gupta, a 
lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. "We don't see any reason to hold 
this up."

Two of the 14 included in the bill were not released Monday. Daniel 
Olivarez has a drug case pending in another county, and Cash Love's case is 
still pending on a direct appeal that has not been completed.

Freddie Brookins Jr. was one of a few who took a long, hot bubble bath. He 
luxuriated for about 45 minutes.

"The last 24 hours have been great," Brookins said as he walked along the 
sidewalk of downtown Tulia with his 7-year-old stepdaughter, Serena 
Basaldua. "It's great to finally be out here. A lot of tears have been 
shed, but it's happy tears."
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