Pubdate: Mon, 20 Sep 2004
Source: San Antonio Express-News (TX)
Copyright: 2004 San Antonio Express-News
Author: Cary Clack
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


If a house stinks because someone set a skunk loose inside and the
skunk turned over a carton of milk that soured, or a can of garbage
rotted because no one took the time to clean things up, it's no longer
important which smell is the most offensive.

It still stinks.

This image comes to mind in the wake of an FBI report into the
infamous 1999 Tulia drug sting, in which 46 residents of the tiny
Panhandle town were arrested because of the questionable work of an
undercover officer named Tom Coleman.

Racial firecrackers were lit because Coleman was white and 39 of the
defendants were black. Those 39 were about 8 percent of Tulia's black

The FBI report, obtained by KTVT-CBS 11 in Dallas, found no evidence
that Coleman or the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force that hired
him were racially motivated or that any of the defendants' civil
rights were violated.

It also says some of the defendants admitted selling drugs to

At the trials that sentenced 38 of the Tulians to prison, Coleman
testified to buying cocaine from them but presented no audio, video or
any other corroborating evidence.

This lack of evidence, Coleman's tarnished reputation in previous law
enforcement jobs, and his imprecise and contradicting record-keeping
were among the reasons retired state District Judge Ron Chapman called
Coleman "the most devious, non-responsive law enforcement witness this
court has witnessed in 25 years on the bench."

In August 2003, Gov. Rick Perry pardoned 35 of the defendants. This
past summer, 45 of the defendants split $4 million in a civil rights
settlement, with most of the money coming from the city of Amarillo.
The remaining defendant had died.

Even if the FBI report is correct and the stench of Coleman's
escapades in Tulia doesn't emanate from racial bias, at the very least
the offensive odor comes from his incompetence. Among what the FBI
lists as six faults of the case is Coleman's lack of qualifications
for major undercover work.

That some of the defendants were guilty and that Tulia had a drug
problem was never a question, and anyone who painted all the
defendants as innocent was mistaken. But Coleman's bungling and zeal
compromised any legitimate efforts to deal with the problem.

Last fall, when I interviewed Jeff Blackburn, the attorney who led the
defense fight, he made it clear that some of his clients had what he
called "lifestyle difficulties" and were in the drug life.

While sitting in his Amarillo office with him, I read off a list of
the names of each defendant, and Blackburn would say whether he or she
was into drugs.

But even of the ones who were, he insisted that they weren't guilty of
what they were accused.

More outrageous was what was done to the innocents such as Tanya
White, who was in Oklahoma when Coleman claimed he bought drugs from
her; Freddie Brookins Jr., whose reputation was impeccable; and Vicki
Fry, a pregnant white woman who lost her baby days after her wrongful

What happened in Tulia may not have stunk because of race, and it
didn't stink because of the people of Tulia.

When you turn loose a skunk, both the good and the bad get
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