Pubdate: Fri, 23 Jul 2004
Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Copyright: 2004 The Dallas Morning News
Author: Ruben Navarrette


When something goes wrong in the criminal justice system, it's never too 
late to try to make it right.

Exhibit A: 45 people in the Texas Panhandle town of Tulia who now have 
their hands on some rather sizable settlement checks.

The story dates back to a 1999 drug sting, in which, originally, 46 people 
were charged with dealing drugs. They were pardoned and released from jail 
after serious questions were raised about the conduct of police and 
prosecutors. One of the defendants has since died. The other 45 sued, 
claiming the arrests were racially motivated.

Could be. Thirty-nine of the original 46 defendants were black, and the 
former undercover officer who made the arrests - Tom Coleman - has 
acknowledged using the "n-word" in polite conversation.

Meanwhile, Swisher County District Attorney Terry McEachern has 
acknowledged in a deposition that he knew that Mr. Coleman had been 
untruthful in other cases. And yet he put the rogue lawman on the stand and 
built dozens of new cases on Mr. Coleman's testimony.

Now, it's Mr. McEachern who finds himself sitting at the defendant's table. 
Already sanctioned by the State Bar of Texas for violating the legal 
requirement to turn over to the defense exculpatory evidence that might 
have undercut Mr. Coleman's credibility, Mr. McEachern is now headed for 
the additional humiliation of a public hearing in which he plans to 
challenge the bar's ruling.

That's what I call a happy ending. We could use one of those in Dallas 
County, where three years later, authorities are still dodging 
responsibility for the fake-drug scandal.

It is still unclear whether police and prosecutors suspected something was 
amiss in these cases, and failed to do anything about it. It also wouldn't 
hurt to know if prosecutors pushed through cases before they were solid 
enough to take to court, as has been suggested to me by narcotics officers. 
We already know that - in other cases - a prosecutor was about to arrange a 
plea agreement without looking at lab reports indicating that the drugs 
were fake, and that another prosecutor failed to disclose to the defense 
that a sheriff's deputy had lied on the witness stand. If anything similar 
happened in the cases that grew into fake-drug scandal, the public should 
know and the culprits should be fired.

It was supposedly to get to the bottom of all this that a "special 
prosecutor" was appointed late last year by District Attorney Bill Hill, 
whose office - let's remember - owns at least 50 percent of the scandal. 
Mr. Hill made a brilliantly cynical choice in tapping Dan Hagood, a Dallas 
lawyer who, in his private practice, represents criminal defendants who are 
being prosecuted by the same office that Mr. Hagood is now supposed to 

In such transactions, prosecutors have the power - to dismiss cases, reduce 
charges or recommend lenient sentences. And so, if you're a defense 
attorney, antagonizing prosecutors can be bad for business. And yet Mr. 
Hagood is supposed to be independent.

If you believe that, you're more gullible that those cops who couldn't tell 
one kind of white powder from another. It's no wonder some in the Dallas 
legal community are voicing doubts that Mr. Hagood will indeed - as he 
promised when he was appointed - "follow the roads wherever they lead." So 
far, Mr. Hagood has indicted three police officers and five informants but 
no prosecutors.

To be fair, the special prosecutor is looking for criminal violations, but 
wouldn't that include instances of prosecutors signing plea agreements that 
they knew or had reason to suspect were based on false evidence? We don't 
know if that happened, but we never will if Mr. Hagood doesn't investigate 
the possibility. So far, there hasn't even been a whisper from Mr. Hagood's 
office that prosecutors did anything wrong.

It's possible that the special prosecutor is merely playing his cards very 
close to his vest. Still, given that several of the people indicted were 
already brought up on charges in federal court for the same scandal, it 
seems the roads that Mr. Hagood has been following are leading him in 
circles. After the settlement was accepted in Tulia, a lawyer for the NAACP 
declared that horrible chapter closed. Not so in Dallas, where, in a story 
line all its own, a rewriting of history may be quietly under way.

Ruben Navarrette is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. His 
e-mail address is  ---
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