Pubdate: Fri, 12 Mar 2004
Source: Charlotte Observer (NC)
Copyright: 2004 The Charlotte Observer
Author: Betsy Blaney /Associated Press
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


City Paying $5 Million, Agrees to Dissolve Force That Made False Arrests

AMARILLO, Texas - More than 40 people snared in a now-discredited drug 
sting in the Texas Panhandle town of Tulia will share $5 million as part of 
a settlement, an attorney for the plaintiffs said.

The agreement with the nearby city of Amarillo, announced Wednesday, also 
ends the multiagency task force that ran the sting operation. It was 
cheered by the NAACP and attorneys representing those arrested in what many 
believe was a racially motivated operation.

"The settlement that was reached is truly historic," attorney Jeff 
Blackburn told The Associated Press. "It represents the first example of a 
responsible city government putting an end to irresponsible task force 
system of narcotics enforcement."

Marcus Norris, Amarillo's city attorney, called the settlement the 
responsible thing to do, adding the city recognizes the "misjustice" done 
in Tulia by the task force.

"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," Norris 

All but one of the 46 people arrested -- most of them black -- will receive 
some portion of the $5 million. The person not included is deceased.

The task force's only undercover agent, Tom Coleman, who is white, said he 
bought drugs from the defendants, but he worked alone and used no audio or 
video surveillance. No drugs or money were found during arrests.

The case cast an often-unflattering light on the farming town of about 
5,000 between Lubbock and Amarillo on the High Plains. Amarillo, as a 
participant in the task force, saw an "injustice" and wanted to right it, 
Blackburn said.

Kizzie White, who will receive part of the settlement, said Thursday 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 White, 
who spent four years behind bars and was released in 2003. "The money is 
good, too, but that can't bring back the time I missed with my kids."

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

Swisher County officials earlier approved a $250,000 settlement for those 
imprisoned based on Coleman's testimony in exchange for the defendants 
promising not to sue the county. Coleman no longer is an officer.

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."

Coleman, who testified at trials that he bought cocaine from the 
defendants, is scheduled to stand trial May 24 on perjury charges related 
to testimony he gave.

After their arrests, some of the first defendants who went to trial 
received lengthy sentences, one as much as 90 years. That prompted other 
defendants to take plea agreements for lesser terms out of fear of long 
sentences. Gov. Rick Perry granted pardons to 35 of those convicted.
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