Pubdate: Fri, 9 Apr 2004
Source: Texas Observer (TX)
Copyright: 2004 The Texas Observer
Author: Alan Bean
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


A modicum of justice has alighted upon the Panhandle town of Tulia. Tom
Coleman, the itinerant lawman who made narcotics cases on 15 percent of the
town's black population in 1999 as part of a regional narcotics task force
sting, is facing three counts of aggravated perjury. He is scheduled to go
on trial on May 24. The district attorney who prosecuted the cases, Terry
McEachern, has been voted out of office and sanctioned by the Texas Bar
Association. The City of Amarillo has agreed to pay a $5 million settlement
to the Tulia victims. The task force will be disbanded at the end of May.
And the case, which garnered worldwide attention, has inspired plans for a
made-for-television movie and a Hollywood film starring Halle Berry.

In the midst of all this good news, it's easy to forget about Landis and
Mandis Barrow. The Barrow brothers will receive generous compensation checks
like other Tulia defendants, but there isn't much to buy in a prison
commissary. The tidal wave of exoneration sweeping over tiny Tulia, Texas
hasn't reached the Terrell Unit in New Boston where Landis Barrow is
incarcerated or the Gib Lewis Unit in Woodville where Mandis is locked up.

Tom Coleman's charges against the Barrow twins were riddled with problems.
Fortunately for the state, Landis and Mandis Barrow had been charged with
robbery in 1996. Swearing they were innocent, the twins were initially
inclined to fight the charges in court. Then an Amarillo prosecutor offered
to put them back on the streets if they agreed to 10-year probated
sentences. Fresh out of high school and desperate for freedom, Landis and
Mandis took the deal. Little did they know that two years later their parole
would be revoked based on testimony by Tom Coleman.

Mandis Barrow's probation revocation hearing was just one of several causes
on the docket in the Amarillo courtroom on May 12, 2000, and the spectators'
gallery was crowded with defense attorneys and their nervous clients. Even
jaded courtroom veterans were shocked by the testimony lawman-for-hire Tom
Coleman delivered that day.

During a hearing in Swisher County a month earlier, Coleman told the court
he had signed a waiver of arraignment in May of 1998 after learning that he
had been indicted on theft charges in nearby Cochran County. The charges
against Coleman were dropped on August 17 after he agreed to reimburse
Cochran County merchants for almost $7,000 in bad debts. Although Coleman
should have been suspended from active duty between late May and mid-August
of 1998 he had made 19 cases during this period, including a June 23 case
filed on Mandis Barrow.

Dallas Attorney John Read told Amarillo's NBC affiliate that Tom Coleman
"isn't smart enough to lie." Read should have said that his celebrity client
isn't smart enough to lie consistently. At Mandis Barrow's hearing, the
undercover agent simply withdrew the allegation that he had purchased drugs
from Barrow on June 23, 1998. No harm done-Coleman had filed another case
against Mandis on September 3 of that year.

But the complications just kept coming. Landis and Mandis Barrow are
identical twins-neither their mother Anita nor Tom Coleman can tell them
apart. All Coleman claimed to know for sure was that one twin set up the
drug deal and the other twin handed him the dope. He resolved the
identification problem by filing a case on both men. A case this shaky might
not stand up in court, but it was more than enough to revoke the twins'
probation. Judges can revoke for being late for a meeting with a probation
officer if they choose, but a revocation hearing is usually sparked by a
breach of the law. It didn't matter if Mandis set up a drug deal or made the
hand-to-hand transfer-either would be enough to send him to prison for 20

Then Walt Weaver, the twins' defense attorney, began to question the lawman.
If Coleman wasn't sure if Mandis had set up the deal or handed over the
drugs maybe he didn't do either. Coleman thought it over, then suggested
that Eliga Kelly, the middle-aged black man who had introduced him to
Tulia's black community, told him which twin did what.

Weaver pointed out that Eliga Kelly wasn't in the courtroom, and then asked
Tom Coleman when he first knew that theft charges had been filed against him
in Cochran County. The narcotics agent had little choice but to repeat his
earlier testimony that word had reached him in May of 1998.

Then Judge Don Emerson asked where Weaver was going with this line of
questioning and the defense attorney was forced to tip his hand. If Coleman
knew about the Cochran County charges in May, Weaver told the judge, there
were only two possibilities: The June 23 case was fabricated or Coleman had
committed a felony by buying drugs while under suspension. Judge Emerson
didn't see that it mattered. Even if Coleman had broken the law by buying,
Mandis had committed a felony by selling. Nonetheless, Weaver was told to
proceed. By that point, Tom Coleman had learned enough to change his story.
He hadn't known about the theft charges until August 17, he now insisted.
Besides, the undercover agent alleged, "these charges stem from a vindictive
sheriff's office because of some of the things that I knew that was going on

Judge Emerson nodded patiently as officer Coleman entangled himself in a
bizarre web of deception. Coleman said he bought drugs from Mandis Barrow on
June 23, then remembered it never happened. Coleman testified he had no idea
which of the Barrow twins sold him the dope on September 3, then remembered
that Eliga Kelly had cleared up his identification problem. Coleman said he
had been suspended from active duty in May of 1998, then remembered that the
suspension didn't go into effect until August. Finally, the Texas Law
Officer of the Year alleged a criminal conspiracy hatched by a vindictive
sheriff. Judge Don Emerson must have been convinced by Coleman's grotesque
performance because he ruled for the state and sentenced Mandis Barrow to 20
years in prison.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the judge's decision. The June 23
indictment had obviously been "mistakenly filed" but "an honest mistake does
not rise to the level of perjury," the court declared. Coleman may not have
been able to distinguish Landis from Mandis, but it was conceivable that
Eliga Kelly "had identified which twin passed the controlled substance to
Coleman." Finally, the Appeals Court argued, if Judge Emerson was convinced
by Coleman's testimony, no perjury had been committed by definition.

Eliga Kelly was horrified when he got the news about Mandis, but it was too
late. In a notarized statement, Kelly described the ill-fated meeting
between Tom Coleman and the Barrow twins. "Mandis asked me why was I still
riding around with that police," Kelly reported. Coleman walked up "and
asked me were those the twins? I told him yes and he asked Mandis where
could he get some smoke? Mandis told him that he didn't sell dope and he
didn't know where to get any and furthermore don't ever approach him about
any dope. Then the twins drove off very mad."

Walt Weaver told Mandis that Kelly's statement couldn't be used on appeal
because it didn't appear in the transcript of the hearing. Every month I get
another letter from the Barrow twins. Whether the letter is from Mandis or
Landis the poignant signature is always the same: Twin.

Last year Dallas Judge Ron Chapman heard essentially the same testimony
Coleman delivered in May of 2000 and called it perjury. In fact, the judge
declared Coleman "the most devious, non-responsive law enforcement witness"
he had encountered in 25 years on the bench. The findings of fact released
after the Chapman hearings cited Tom Coleman's testimony at Mandis Barrow's
hearing as a prime example of "Coleman's perjured and misleading

When Judge Don Emerson listened to Coleman's lies in the spring of 2000, the
Coleman sting hadn't produced a regional headline for eight months. Two
springs later, during the Chapman hearings, "Tulia" was a national story and
a reporter for The New York Times was scribbling ominously in the front row
of the spectators' gallery. Judge Chapman had ample reason to pay attention.

"The horrible thing about all legal officials," G.K. Chesterton wrote almost
a century ago, "is simply that they get used to it. Strictly they do not see
the prisoner in the dock; all they see is the usual man in the usual place."
Mandis Barrow was the usual man in the usual place-so was Tom Coleman. It
was Coleman's job to provide a legal pretext for a routine conviction.

The perjured testimony that doomed the Barrow twins may well place Tom
Coleman behind bars. But even if Coleman is convicted he'll be back in the
free world long before Landis and Mandis are released. The recent settlement
will make the Barrow twins wealthy men-at least by the modest standards of
cash-strapped Tulia. But the story won't have a triumphant Hollywood ending
until Landis and Mandis have somewhere other than a prison commissary to
spend their hard-earned money.

Alan Bean is Executive Director of Friends of Justice, a Tulia-based
criminal justice reform organization and is currently writing a book about
Tulia and the Coleman drug sting.
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