Pubdate: Sat, 17 Apr 2004
Source: Birmingham News, The (AL)
Copyright: 2004 The Birmingham News
Author: Carla Crowder, News staff writer
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


MONTGOMERY - With his pressed khakis, golf shirt and wire-rimmed
glasses, Freddie Brookins hardly looked like an ex-con fresh from the
penitentiary as he told his story Friday at a Montgomery hotel.

And he's not a criminal. But that didn't matter in Tulia, Texas.
Brookins went to prison anyway.

His small west Texas farmtown has become notorious for a rogue cop's
1999 drug sweep. Thirty-five people arrested and convicted on the
undercover agent's testimony were freed and pardoned last year, and
they recently won a $6 million civil settlement. Most of them,
including Brookins, are black.

He shared his experiences with a group of prisoners' advocates and
relatives at the opening day of this weekend's Family Members of
Inmates convention. The Alabama families were seeking help with their
own struggles against the prison system and tough drug laws.

Brookins said he traveled to Alabama because, "If I came here and told
my story, it would open more people's eyes to the justice system. What
I need to do now is let people know about it, because it's happening
all over the world. The same way people opened up doors for me, I feel
like I should open up doors for someone else."

Brookins was arrested in July 1999 in a massive early morning drug
bust that followed a round of indictments. Of 46 suspects indicted, 39
were black. Tulia is a mostly white town north of Lubbock.

Brookins was 22 then, the son of a man who worked at a meatpacking
plant and farmed on the side. "I was at home. I'd just woke up to
clean up and go to work for my dad," Brookins said. "When I went to
answer the door, it was the sheriff."

Soon thereafter, Brookins was convicted of selling cocaine, sentenced
to 20 years in prison and shipped 800 miles from home.

Undercover drug agent Tom Coleman, the single witness against the
defendants, has been indicted for perjury and faces trial next month.

"The way people looked at things ... this is a police officer, and
they going to believe the police officer's word over yours. But I
think racism had a lot to do with it, also," Brookins said. "They seen
us as guilty before we ever had went to court."

His children are still confused over the deal.

"I have sweet kids, and I teach them to be respectful. Very
respectful," Brookins said. "Since I had been to prison, I guess they
kind of looked at me as a bad person. If a kid knows you've been in
jail, they're automatically going to think you've done it."

His 8-year-old daughter was the toughest. "Didn't you do something
wrong?" Serena would ask. "I was like, 'No baby, I didn't do anything
wrong.' But for a long time she didn't believe me."

Jeff Blackburn, an Amarillo attorney who represented the Tulia
residents in their federal civil case, also spoke Friday.

"We've got to make the connection between the legal community and the
real community of activists and people like you," Blackburn told about
200 people. "And we've got a long way to go."

Blackburn said the greatest victory of the civil suit is that it will
curb the use of drug task forces in Texas. Part of the agreement
required the Amarillo-Swisher County task force to disband.

Coleman was a deputy for Swisher County Texas hired by the task

"Freddie's problems, and the problems of the other people in Tulia,
were the result of a numbers-driven, grant-financed, big regional drug
task force system that basically traded numbers of convictions and
arrests for grant money," Blackburn said.

A small number of people sold crack cocaine in small quantities,
Blackburn said. "Outside of that group, there were people like Freddie
and from all I could tell, they were a name, they were black, they
were there."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake