Pubdate: Wed, 25 Jun 2003
Source: Plainview Daily Herald (TX)
Copyright: 2003 Plainview Daily Herald
Author: Deborah Hastings


TULIA (Associated Press) ­ What happened here is not simply a study in 
black and white, despite the skin colors of its characters. It is not 
purely a story of stupidity and arrogance, though both are prevalent.

It is a tragedy of small minds and made-up crimes that eventually created 
one of the worst miscarriages of justice in Texas history. If it werenīt so 
awful, some of what happened in this tiny town might be comical, given the 
buffoonish protagonist and his inability to keep his stories straight.

Thomas Roland Coleman, the son of a locally famous Texas Ranger, drove into 
this dried-up place that looks in need of a long drink of water. He cruised 
the battered roads where black people live. For 18 months, beginning in 
1998, he said he was T.J. Dawson, a laborer whose girlfriend needed cocaine 
to get in the mood for sex.

He was really an undercover cop for a drug task force based in Amarillo, 
about 50 miles up the flat ribbon of Interstate 27. Coleman was allowed to 
work alone for The Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force. He 
kept no written records, save incident reports filed with seized evidence, 
reports later determined to be false. No photographs were taken. No video 
was shot. No one observed his buys.

Every ensuing conviction relied on one thing: his word.

By the time he finished testifying, 38 people, 35 of them black, had been 
convicted of selling small amounts of cocaine and sentenced to prison for 
as long as 90 years. For this, he was named Texasī outstanding narcotics 
officer in 2000.

Problem is, the star witness lied on the stand and several other places. 
Another problem - Swisher County District Attorney Terry McEachern, Sheriff 
Larry Stewart and District Judge Ed Self, who heard most of the cases, knew 
the witness had a long, tarnished record in law enforcement. That 
information was kept from jurors and from defense attorneys.

The arrests accounted for about 10 percent of Tuliaīs black residents.

The Tulia cases have languished for four years. Last Monday, 12 people in 
state prison were released on their own recognizance pending a ruling on 
their future from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which could take as 
long as two years. Four others remain in custody.

Despite protests from members of Congress, promised hearings before a 
federal oversight committee and ongoing federal and state investigations, 
not one conviction has been overturned.

No action has been taken against officials from Swisher County or the 
regional task force.

­ ­ ­

The state appointed two special prosecutors earlier this year to hold 
evidence hearings to determine if Colemanīs testimony was indeed the sole 
basis for conviction in four cases. And to find out if county officials 
withheld information damaging to their star witness. The answer to both 
questions: yes.

Retired Dallas District Judge Ron Chapman - appointed after Self recused 
himself - stopped the hearings one day after Coleman took the stand, saying 
the former undercover officer was committing "blatant perjury."

A stipulation signed in May by the judge, the special prosecutors and 
defense lawyers working pro bono for the NAACP Legal Defense and 
Educational Fund in New York, said all 38 convictions should be overturned, 
including 27 plea bargains signed to avoid lengthy prison terms.

Coleman is "the most devious, nonresponsive witness this court has 
witnessed in 25 years on the bench in Texas," the judge wrote. Coleman also 
was a bigot who used the "n" word in front of task force supervisors while 
conducting an investigation against mostly black suspects, testimony showed.

Examples of Coleman's repeated perjury, the document said, included 
testifying that he'd never been arrested "except for a traffic ticket back 
when I was a kid" and that heīd left previous law enforcement jobs "in good 

In truth, Coleman was arrested in August 1998, in the middle of the Tulia 
investigation, on charges of theft and abusing authority while a deputy 
with the Cochran County Sheriffīs Office.

He'd walked off that job and skipped town owing more than $7,000 to local 
stores that extended credit because he was a deputy, and stole more than 
100 gallons of gasoline from county pumps, documents and testimony showed. 
Charges were dropped when Coleman made restitution.

He'd also abandoned a previous deputyīs post in Pecos County, just before 
he was about to be fired for lying, documents said.

The 129-page finding also faulted local officials for:

*Allowing Sheriff Stewart to testify that he hadnīt received any negative 
information about Coleman "despite the fact that he himself arrested 
Coleman" on the Cochran County warrant.

*Portraying Coleman in court as an exemplary officer with no criminal record

"It was a comedy of errors, it just wasnīt one mistake," said Lubbock 
criminal defense attorney Rod Hobson, one of the special prosecutors. "It 
was the task force, McEachern, Coleman, everyone involved screwed up, 
practically. And then covered it up and circled the wagons."

Hobson is the kind of lawyer who keeps a loaded gun in his desk. He looks 
like he's seen the worst of the criminal justice system and isn't afraid to 
shoot it.

"If we handle drug cases this poorly," Hobson asks, "what confidence do you 
have in all the people on death row?"

­ ­ ­

Tulia, population 5,000 and dropping, isnīt much more than a wide spot in 
the road between Amarillo and Lubbock in the chimney of Texas nuzzling 
Oklahoma. Even now, some residents believe drugs cause most problems here.

A depressed economy is the more likely cause.

There used to be a Dairy Queen and a grocery store named Joe Bob's. There 
used to be more recreation options than drinking and drugs and satellite 
television. On this unbroken plain that seems to stretch to the ends of the 
Earth, it is easy to forget there are other places in the world and other 
ways of doing things.

Jobs and people have been leaving here since the Texas economy shifted two 
decades ago and buried small oil, farming and cattle businesses. Downtown 
Tulia nearly suffocated. It is still waiting to be resuscitated.

There is one section of town where all the homes are nice and all the lawns 
are green. The locals call it Snob Hill and the houses are the most 
expensive Tulia has to offer. This is where white people with money live, 
separated from the burned grass and dilapidated homes of poor families, who 
are mostly black and Hispanic.

Black people, who number about 400, mostly work behind the scenes, in the 
fields, the restaurant kitchens, and the nearby prison. Some canīt work or 
don't, and live on welfare in federally subsidized housing - and it is from 
these ranks that Coleman culled most of his cases.

His previous experience with drug cases, he testified during the 
evidentiary hearing, came from sniffing out marijuana during some routine 
traffic stops as a patrol deputy in Cochran County. The Panhandle Regional 
Narcotics Task Force, flush with more than $1 million in federal and state 
funds, targeted Tulia because it had asked for help.

Coleman first went after local troublemakers identified by Sheriff Stewart, 
according to defense lawyers. The sheriff denied those claims. Then Coleman 
went after their family members and friends, until he had 46 indictments.

On July 23, 1999, Coleman, wearing a ski mask and flanked by other 
officers, rousted people from their beds not long after dawn and paraded 
them across the courthouse lawn before a tipped-off media gantlet. No drugs 
or paraphernalia or money or guns were found during the arrests.

Vickie Fry was picked up about 90 minutes after they came for her husband, 
Vincent McCray, on the same charge: delivery of cocaine. She had two small 
children and was newly pregnant.

Standing outside in handcuffs, she watched her mother come charging up the 

"Itīs OK," Fry called, though it most definitely was not. "Take care of my 

She got herself into the back seat of the patrol car, fast. "I just wanted 
to be out of there before my children got to looking out them windows."

At the county jail, she was surrounded by what seemed to be most of the 
black people in Tulia. "Whatīs going on?" she asked.

Fry was locked up for a week. She got a court-appointed defense lawyer, who 
advised her to sign a plea bargain for five years' probation or face two to 
12 years in state prison.

She had never seen Tom Coleman in her life, she said, but she signed 
anyway. "I needed to take care of my kids," she said recently in the 
cramped house she shares with McCray, who also plea-bargained and went to 
state prison for three years. He was paroled in 2001.

Local defense lawyers say plea bargains were the best they could do for 
their clients. Outside attorneys who reviewed the cases say those lawyers 
didnīt do enough.

Fry has lived in Tulia all her life. She knows who uses the crack pipe and 
who doesn't. They aren't drug dealers, just small-time users, she says.

"I kept saying to myself, you know what? Itīs just these - and excuse the 
expression - these white folks out here trying to get us up outta here. 
They donīt want us here."

A few days after her release, Fry miscarried. "I had to tell him on the 
phone that we lost the baby," Fry says, because her husband was locked up.

The now-defunct local paper, the Tulia Sentinel, ran a headline declaring 
"Tulia's Streets Cleared of Garbage."

Mayor Boyd Vaughan did not return phone messages left by The Associated 
Press. The Chamber of Commerce president declined comment. But Freddie 
Brookins, standing outside the local courthouse Monday after being freed, 
smiled broadly when asked about his town. "We have good people here in 
Tulia," he said. "Thereīs no doubt about it, we have great people here in 

Fry remembers being called a scumbag. "We were the lowest of the low," Fry 
said. "But it didnīt make no sense. If they were going to bust somebody, 
they should have got them for rock (cocaine) or weed. Not for powder. 
There's no rich people here."

Pig farmer Joe Welton Moore was the first to go on trial. He was the drug 
kingpin of Tulia, authorities said. He lived in a shack with a dirt front yard.

After his release last week, Moore exulted in being free. "Ah, it feels 
great," he said. Prison, he said, was survived by faith. "I fell on my 
knees and asked the Lord to help me. I couldn't handle it," he said.

On Dec. 15, 1999, the state began its case by presenting a bag of cocaine 
worth about $400 and Colemanīs testimony. One day later, Moore - a former 
bootlegger in this dry county who has a previous narcotics felony on his 
record - was sentenced to 90 years.

All of the busts were for powder cocaine, more expensive than the rock 
variety. A gram of powder usually sells for $100 or more on the street, 
narcotics officers say, a rock often goes for about $20 or more. Powder 
cocaine weighs more, and Texas law allows stiffer punishments for heavier 

This point was not lost on defense attorneys who later reviewed the lengthy 
jail terms meted out. Drug laws also allow longer sentences when sales are 
made near schools or parks. Conveniently, defense attorneys said, Coleman 
reported nearly all of his purchases near these locations.

Also, defense attorneys note, the cocaine evidence was of inferior purity - 
in some cases as low as 2 percent. The average purity of street sales is at 
least 60 percent, crime statistics show.

Defense attorneys speculate Coleman smashed rock cocaine and mixed it with 
a white substance to manufacture several bags of evidence. Special 
prosecutor Hobson says Coleman was sold a diluted form by some Tulia 
residents who saw an opportunity to make money off this new guy in town.

"I'm not saying now and I have never said that all these people are 
innocent," Hobson said. "But here's the thing - out of 38 people, if even 
one of them is innocent - then how can you base a conviction on Coleman's 
word in any one of these cases?"

One defendant died before trial. Seven cases were dropped. Some defendants 
proved they were elsewhere when Coleman said he bought drugs from them. 
Tanya White - who was living in the next state - was at an Oklahoma City 
bank cashing a check, bank records showed. Billy Don Wafer was at work, and 
produced his boss and his time card to prove it.

Yul Bryant, described by Coleman as tall and bushy-haired, is actually 
short and bald. He was jailed for seven months before charges were dismissed.

Hobson was appointed to represent Coleman and his employers. Instead, he 
felt ethically bound to indict him. "The star witness doesnīt tell the 
truth - I mean what am I supposed to do?"

Three counts of aggravated perjury were filed in April over Colemanīs 
evidentiary hearing testimony. Itīs too late to charge him for his trial 
testimony. The statute of limitations for perjury is three years.

Coleman posted $10,000 bail and remains free pending trial. He lives near 
Fort Worth and is believed to be working as a welder.

His phone is disconnected. His attorney, Cindy Ermatinger, did not return 
phone messages. Nor did McEachern, Stewart or Self. All three have denied 

At the evidentiary hearings, Amarillo Police Lt. Michael Amos, who heads 
the task force, acknowledged Colemanīs employment check produced negative 

"We knew there were a couple of things we needed to discuss about Tom 
Colemanīs background," Amos said. Nonetheless, Coleman was hired - 30 days 
before funding expired for his position, which defense attorneys say 
accounts for why he was hired with such a spotty record.

Amos did not return phone calls.

When defense attorneys tried to get Colemanīs background introduced as 
evidence, Judge Self ruled no, saying legal precedent allowed attorneys to 
use only prior criminal convictions - not charges - to try to impeach the 
credibility of a witness.

Defense lawyers began to complain - to the NAACP, to the Justice 
Department, to reporters. But when it came to getting Texas officials to 
listen, it was like trying to scream underwater.

­ ­ ­

Paul Holloway was appointed by the court to represent four Tulia residents. 
 From the beginning, he found the cases troublesome. He asked Self for 
money to hire an investigator. He was denied. He laid out his defense 
theory to the judge, suggesting Coleman might have manufactured his own 
evidence, and asked for detailed audits of task force spending.

Self denied the requests.

"I said, 'Judge, you understand what this means?' " Holloway recounted. He 
was almost begging in open court. If he couldn't impeach the state's star 
witness, his clients were done for.

"And he said, 'I know exactly what this means. Now sit down.'

"I went back to my office just dumbfounded, and I said there's no way I can 
win this." So the lawyer encouraged his clients to plea-bargain.

"It's not justice," Holloway said. "This is not even vaguely like anything 
I've ever known about the system."

Holloway wonīt even consider filing a complaint about the trial rulings. He 
depends on Self and other judges for his client base. Then he has to argue 
before those judges to protect his clients.

"That would be a death sentence," Holloway said. "I would have to leave here."

Outside attorneys agree the system is partly to blame, but they donīt have 
much faith in appointed defense counselors, either.

"Court-appointed lawyers in Texas are a one-way ticket to the state pen," 
said Jeff Blackburn, an Amarillo attorney who now represents many of the 
Tulia defendants. "These are guys who argue in front of elected judges 
serving a hard-line, pro-prosecution electorate."

­ ­ ­

Hobsonīs Lubbock law office is conveniently located across from the county 
jail and next to a bail bondsman.

His job as special prosecutor is nearly finished. All that remains is 
trying Coleman for perjury.

He doesnīt expect anything to happen to McEachern, Stewart or Self. "I've 
seen colossal negligence, lots of stupidity, possible unethical conduct, 
but is there a criminal case? I donīt think so. And I know thatīs not what 
people want to hear."

The statute of limitations for perjury has run out. A threatened civil suit 
against Swisher County was dropped in exchange for a total settlement of 
$250,000 for the defendants and the promise to not pursue further 
litigation. Some residents believe suing the task force could get more.

But neither money nor scandal has changed Tulia, Hobson said.

"Let me tell you how little they've learned," he says, and recounts a 
recent conversation with Sheriff Stewart, who wanted to pursue an unfiled 
charge against Freddie Brookins, who had already been sentenced to 20 years 
for selling cocaine to Coleman.

When Brookins was arrested, he was taken to jail in handcuffs. In his 
wallet was an old marijuana butt.

"So they indicted him - not for possession of marijuana, which is a 
misdemeanor - but for smuggling drugs into a correctional facility, which 
is a state felony," Hobson says. Stewart wanted Hobson to file the 
additional charge.

"Y'all haven't learned a thing," Hobson yelled at him.

"I mean, the depth of dumbness of the people I'm working with," he says. 
"I'm telling you this thing could happen again tomorrow up there. I mean, 
they have learned nothing."
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens