Pubdate: Thu, 11 Mar 2004
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2004 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Author: Betsy Blaney
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


AMARILLO (AP)- Plaintiffs in a civil-rights lawsuit settled for $5 million 
involving a now-discredited drug bust accomplished their goal of 
dismantling the task force they say targeted blacks, the attorney for the 
two women who filed the lawsuit said today.

"There's no amount of money that could ever compensate the people in 
Tulia," said attorney Jeff Blackburn at a news conference announcing the 
settlement. "In our view this was a whole systemic failure."

The agreement with the city of Amarillo disbands the multi-agency task 
force that oversaw the sting's undercover agent, Tom Coleman, who is white, 
Blackburn said.

"The law on who is responsible for the task force is very unsettled and the 
city could not risk a $30-, $50- or $100- million dollar judgment," said 
Marcus Norris, Amarillo's city attorney.

On July 23, 1999, 44 people -- 37 of whom are black -- were arrested in the 
busts, which civil rights groups claimed were racially motivated. Coleman 
worked alone for 18 months and used no audio or video surveillance. Little 
or no corroborating evidence was introduced during the trials.

Though the settlement involves a civil rights lawsuit filed last summer by 
Zuri Bossett and Tonya White, two women whose drug charges were dropped 
after they provided alibis, all but one of the 46 arrested will receive 
some portion of the settlement. One defendant died before going to trial 
and is not included in the settlement, Blackburn said. A claims 
administrator will determine how the funds will be apportioned, taking into 
account factors like the amount of jail time served.

Norris, who called the settlement the responsible thing to do, said that 
the city recognizes the "misjustice" done in Tulia by the task force.

"The courts simply have not dealt in a definitive way with who is 
responsible for a task force operation," said Mike Loftin, an attorney 
hired to help the city defend itself.

In a move that Norris said is "connected" to the settlement, Amarillo 
police officers Sgt. Jerry Massengill and Lt. Mike Amos, two of those who 
had supervised Coleman, will retire before the end of the year.

Vanita Gupta, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund 
who also represents the plaintiffs, commended the city of Amarillo. "It's 
not simply that Tom Coleman was a rogue officer," she said. "The city of 
Amarillo has recognized that federally funded task forces are ineffective 
tools of law enforcement and they operate as rogue task forces because they 
are unaccountable to any oversight mechanism."

Kizzy White, sister of Tonya White and among those covered by the 
settlement, said she is satisfied with it and is especially glad to see the 
task force disbanded.

"They need to be gone and let the city and county do the job," said Kizzy 
White, who spent four years behind bars and was released on June 16, 2003. 
"The money is good too, but that can't bring back the time I missed with my 

Some of the first defendants to go to trial received lengthy sentences, one 
as much as 90 years. The long sentences prompted other defendants to take 
plea agreements for lesser terms out of fear of lengthy sentences at trial.

Mediation is ongoing with others named in the lawsuit -- 26 counties and 
three cities that were involved with the Panhandle Regional Narcotics 
Trafficking Task Force.

The women's lawsuit accused the counties and cities involved in the task 
force of violating the women's constitutional rights and directing racial 
bias against the black population in Tulia -- a farming town of about 5,000 
between Lubbock and Amarillo.

Charges against Bossett were dropped in July 2002 after prosecutors and 
defense attorneys reached an agreement.

Tonya White's charges were dropped in April 2002 after she produced a bank 
deposit slip with her signature that proved she was in Oklahoma when 
Coleman alleged he sold drugs to her.

The women's suit was filed Aug. 22, the same day Gov. Rick Perry pardoned 
35 prosecuted in the Tulia cases. Those 35 defendants spent a combined 80 
years in jail.

Norris said that Perry's decision to pardon those cases "had a direct 
impact on our ability to defend the case."

Following evidentiary hearings in which a judge pronounced Coleman "simply 
not a credible witness under oath," Swisher County officials approved a 
$250,000 settlement for those imprisoned on Coleman's word. In exchange, 
those defendants promised not to sue the county. Bossett and White did not 
receive any of the settlement because their charges had been dropped.

Coleman is scheduled to stand trial May 24 on perjury charges related to 
testimony he gave during evidentiary hearings in March 2003.
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