Pubdate: Wed, 15 Sep 2004
Source: Irish Times, The (Ireland)
Copyright: 2004 The Irish Times
Author: Lara Marlowe
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


Freddie Brookins will not be allowed to vote against George W. Bush on
November 2nd. Although he received a pardon from the current Texas governor,
Rick Perry, and a substantial cash settlement for the four years of a
20-year sentence he served in prison, Brookins's record has not yet been
cleared, making him ineligible. Brookins believes that once Tom Coleman, the
undercover narcotics agent who falsely accused him of selling cocaine,
stands trial on perjury charges, the slate will be wiped clean.

In the meantime Brookins (27) is studying to be a medical assistant. He
coaches two Little League football teams and has settled down with his wife,
Terry, whom he married in prison, and their two daughters. His share of the
$6 million paid out this summer to the 45 surviving victims of Coleman's
sting bought the family a cottage two blocks from the sheriff's office, and
a shiny new SUV.  At the Terrel Unit in Livingstone, Texas, Brookins was
assigned to be a janitor on death row. "I talked to the guys through the
bars," he says. "They might not be executed for 15 or 20 years. That's just
our system here in Texas."

Brookins blames President Bush for what happened to the men and women
arrested in Tulia. "He had a chance to clear everything up, but he just
didn't want to do it," says the former prisoner. Bush was governor of Texas
when the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force (now dissolved) hired
Coleman, an itinerant lawman who was charged with theft in neighbouring
Cochran County. In July 1999 police arrested 46 people, of whom 39 were
black, and charged them with selling cocaine to Coleman.  Three were
released. Eight were tried and found guilty in 2000. The rest got lesser
sentences because they plea-bargained.

Alan Bean and his father-in-law, Charles Kiker, white Tulia residents with
strong Christian beliefs, were appalled by the sting and what Bean calls "a
pattern of racial profiling in the local justice system."  Forty-six cocaine
dealers seemed like a lot for a town of 5,117. The seven non-black detainees
had strong ties to the black community.

Bean and Kiker founded Friends of Justice and brought in journalist Nate
Blakeslee, then of the Texas Observer.

Blakeslee is now writing a book about Tulia with a grant from the Soros
Foundation. In June 2000 he published the first of a series of articles
about the Tulia sting. The American Civil Liberties Union and the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed lawsuits.

In the midst of Bush's first presidential campaign, national media seized on
Tulia as an example of justice Texas-style under Governor Bush. It followed
the 1998 killing of James Byrd, a black man in east Texas who was lynched by
three young whites and dragged behind a car for four kilometers.  During the
1990s Texas built 57 new prisons and nearly quadrupled its prison
population, from 40,000 to 151,000. Alan Bean says this is largely the
result of the War on Drugs, which targets small-time users and dealers.

Because the War on Drugs is sacred to Democrats as well as Republicans, Bean
despairs of the government developing a more rational strategy than the mass
incarceration of underclass black males.  With Coleman's coming perjury
trial, Bean says: "They're trying to hermetically seal Tulia, to make it
look like an exception, whereas it's an egregious example of business as

Every time Bush was asked about Tulia, he replied that he didn't know the
facts of the case. He answered written inquiries saying he had full
confidence in the justice system and law enforcement agencies.

Except that the justice system didn't work.  Tulia defendants rotted in
prison for nearly four years before the case unraveled in evidentiary
hearings in March 2003. Judge Ron Chapman concluded that "Coleman's repeated
instances of verifiably perjurous testimony render him entirely unbelievable
under oath."

Chapman recommended that the Tulia convictions - obtained solely on the
basis of Coleman's allegations - be overturned. The Tulia prisoners were
freed in June 2003.  Two months later Governor Richard Perry pardoned 35 of
the 45 surviving accused, including Freddie Brookins.

But the aftershocks of the drug sting still shake this hot, flat little town
in the Panhandle. Much of Tulia's white community, including Sheriff Larry
Stewart, continue to believe the 46 were guilty, that Coleman is a
scapegoat.  The cash settlement by the Amarillo municipality and surrounding
counties, awarded this summer, is deeply resented by many. They quote
Coleman's high-powered lawyer from Dallas: "If we pay people for dealing
drugs, we're going to have a lot of drug-dealers."

As revealed in an FBI report leaked last month, 11 of the defendants
admitted selling drugs to Coleman. That is not at issue, replies Alan Bean
of Friends of Justice.  Coleman jumbled the dates and times of drug
purchases, confused the identities of the defendants and turned in large
amounts of expensive powder cocaine when they sold him small amounts of
cheap crack. Multiple life sentences were handed down on the basis of
Coleman's flawed testimony.

Sheriff Stewart was accompanied by Coleman when they came to arrest Freddie
Brookins five years ago. "I said to him, 'Sheriff Stewart, you've known me
my whole life. You know I don't deal drugs'," Brookins recalls. "Coleman
lifted his ski mask and said, 'Don't you remember me?' I'd never seen him
before. I saw Coleman only twice; when they arrested me and at my trial."

Stewart seethes with rage at the "east coast liberals" and media who meddled
in little Swisher county. "We had eight juries," he notes. "Each one had 12
individuals from this community and each determined they were guilty. The
rest of the world apparently doesn't believe these 96 people had a clue. Is
it appropriate that attorneys from Washington and New York overturn the
decisions of local juries?"

Coleman's change-of-venue hearing is scheduled for September 29th ; his
lawyer says he can't get a fair trial in Tulia. The US presidential election
campaign draws little attention here; it's a foregone conclusion that Bush
will win Texas.

The most eloquent commentator on the Tulia drug sting is Freddie Brookins's
father, Fred (50). After 31 years of grueling labor in a meat-packing plant,
Brookins snr still works 11-hour shifts. He is annoyed by those who suggest
his son's exoneration proves that justice eventually triumphs in the US.

"When I was growing up, you could understand [such abuses] because we were
going through changes," Brookins says. "But this happened at the turn of the

Brookins's second son, John, was in the US army for eight years, but decided
not to re-enlist. "I'm so glad my son is out of the military," he continues.
"I had one son in the military and one son in prison. John wrote to me from
Kuwait and said: 'Dad, I just don't believe in this any more.' What I taught
them all their lives, it took only a moment for people to erase."
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