Pubdate: Sat, 19 Jun 2004
Source: Ft. Worth Star-Telegram (TX)
Copyright: 2004 Star-Telegram, Fort Worth, Texas
Author: Associated Press
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


TULIA, Texas - A judge who ruled that an undercover agent in the now
discredited 1999 Tulia drug busts was not a credible witness is
returning to this West Texas town - this time to decide how to divvy
up a $6 million settlement among 45 defendants.

The Tulia cases brought national attention to this farming and
ranching town of about 5,000 between Amarillo and Lubbock. Several
civil rights groups claimed the drug arrests were racially motivated
because 39 of the 46 arrested or charged in the 18-month operation
were black. The agent was white.

Gov. Rick Perry granted pardons last year to 35 defendants who spent a
combined total of 80 years behind bars. Charges were dropped against
others arrested.

Ron Chapman, a retired district judge in Dallas, will meet with each
defendant this week in Tulia or Amarillo to decide how much of the
settlement they will receive. Chapman said he'll consider what the
defendants lost while they were in jail - wages, homes, job
opportunities - but mainly he'll base his decision on how much time
each person served.

Several Panhandle cities and law enforcement agencies that made up the
drug task force that hired Tom Coleman as an undercover agent agreed
earlier this year to settle the lawsuit brought by two of the
defendants, both women.

Coleman, 44, testified at trials that he bought cocaine from the
defendants. He worked alone in building the drug cases and used no
audio or video surveillance.

All but one of those targeted by Coleman will receive settlement
money. One defendant died before his case went to trial.

Chapman was chosen because of his familiarity with the case. In March
2003, he presided at evidentiary hearings in Tulia for four
defendants' appeals. The next month he halted the proceedings after
hearing Coleman testify, ruling that Coleman was "simply not a
credible witness under oath." In June 2003, Chapman released 12
defendants who were still in prison.

No longer in law enforcement, Coleman faces three charges of
aggravated perjury stemming from that testimony.

Some of the defendants in the case have had legal trouble since they
were freed, but Chapman said that won't influence his decision.

"This is all about what happened back then," he said.

Many of the Tulia defendants already have plans for their money.

Some said they will invest part of it, buy homes or fix up the ones
they have now.

Others will set aside money for their children's education.

"That's the first thing," said Donnie White, 34, who spent 2 1/2 years
in prison.

"I want them to be able to go to college wherever they want," said
Freddie Brookins Jr., who served 3 1/2 years of 20-year sentence and
now works for a Lubbock construction company.

Attorneys for the defendants are making arrangements for financial
planners to come to Tulia.

"I think it's really critical because a lot of them have never even
had bank accounts," said Vanita Gupta, an attorney with the NAACP
Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which marshaled the legal team
that won the defendants their freedom.

Some defendants have an arrangement with a Pampa car dealer and are
driving new vehicles that cost as much as $40,000. They plan to pay
when they get their settlement checks, which should be this summer.

"After four years of unjustly being in prison, it's understandable why
some folks have a very natural urge to celebrate and enjoy life with
something that some see as a splurge," said Ted Killory, who
represented Joe Moore, a hog farmer sentenced to 90 years.

Some, however, are being more cautious.

"You shouldn't spend anything you don't have," said Alberta Williams,
who spent three years in prison and whose son, Jason Williams, was one
of the defendants who got a car - a used one - from the Pampa dealer.
"I feel like they should have waited."

White, who works in landscaping in Liberal, Kan., where he moved a few
months ago, said the lack of steady work in Tulia sometimes left him
short and forced him to borrow gas money for his $31,000 Ford Explorer
Sport Trac. Still, he believes he deserved a new car.

"I was working. I had a car when I was locked up," he said. "I lost
everything, and I still haven't regained it all. Some of it I'll never
get back. My time with my kids, that's gone forever."
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MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin