Pubdate: Sun, 02 Oct 2005
Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Copyright: 2005 The Dallas Morning News
Author: Jerome Weeks, The Dallas Morning News
Reviewed: TULIA; Race, Cocaine and Corruption in a Small Texas Town 
by Nate Blakeslee (PublicAffairs, $26)
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


Texas justice went horribly wrong in Tulia in 1999, columnists and 
pundits quickly agreed. Forty-seven people, many of them black, all 
of them poor, were arrested for selling cocaine. There was no coke 
found, no videotape of any drug buy and several of the accused had no 
criminal records.One wasn't even in town for her alleged drug deal. 
But in weighing the vague, unsupported say-so of a single narcotics 
officer against all these people from the wrong end of town, Tulia 
juries kept giving them 20 years, 60 years, 361 years, until a clutch 
of local cranks, incensed attorneys, drug-war opponents and honest 
cops stopped the railroading.

Yet what Nate Blakeslee depicts in his new book, Tulia: Race, Cocaine 
and Corruption in a Small Texas Town, is a criminal justice system 
that, as clunky as it is, actually functioned quite well. It's our 
state's law-enforcement-and-prison industry, ever-expanding but 
low-paying and undertrained. It's the mind-set that enforces racism 
and punishes the poor. It's the drug war tactics that encourage 
corruption and cynicism - that system worked fine.

And after the coke-and-race scandals in Dallas and Tulia, the Houston 
crime lab scandal, the media uproars and the late-in-the-day 
political interventions, that system still chugs along. It hasn't 
even changed much in Tulia.

Mr. Blakeslee was the Texas Observer journalist who wrote the first 
major feature on questionable aspects of the early trials. With that 
head start, he's written a first-rate piece of "injustice" 
journalism, the kind of book that outrages while it fascinates. Mr. 
Blakeslee's prose won't inspire readers with much lyrical finesse. 
But his story, though, encompasses dozens of defendants, lawyers and 
hearings, yet he lays out a clear, compelling narrative with some 
cantankerous Texas characters thrown in. Most importantly, he makes 
sense of it all. Coming out Tuesday, Tulia is a prime example of true 
crime reporting. The bonus is that it may be second only to Buzz 
Bissinger's Friday Night Lights as a slice of hardscrabble Panhandle life.

The Tulia disaster wasn't the product of just a rogue cop. Named 
Texas Lawman of the Year for his drug stings, Tom Coleman was such a 
train wreck that, while supposedly uncovering a horde of dealers who 
were making a rather improbable living in a town of only 5,000 
people, he was arrested himself for skipping out on thousands in 
debts. Swisher County officials stood behind Mr. Coleman's drug busts 
while apparently not divulging his arrest or his previous work 
failures to the under-motivated, court-appointed defense attorneys. 
This is what boosted his lies into a Texas-sized embarrassment, a 
revelation of How Things Too Often Get Done Around Here.

But Mr. Blakeslee doesn't stop with peeling back the deceits that led 
to Mr. Coleman's conviction for perjury. Lots of media stories, 
notably Bob Herbert's series of righteously angry columns in The New 
York Times , did as much, even pegging young NAACP Legal Defense Fund 
lawyer Vanita Gupta as one of the heroes.

It's Mr. Coleman's book that also helps us understand:

How the Panhandle's agricultural economy has gone to seed, thanks in 
part to farm subsidies. While many middle-class, Tulia whites resent 
aid to the poor, $28.7 million in annual handouts to (often well-off) 
county landowners ensure that almost everyone there is on some kind 
of dole. Keeping the land fallow also ensures that farm workers and 
feed store owners end up out of work.

How drug enforcement has become pork-ified. Rushed into law by a 
Democratic Congress eager to be tough on crime, the so-called Byrne 
grants have funded county-level task forces. But from the start, 
these were seen as "a valuable way for the governor to seek favor 
with rural and suburban communities." For a patrol officer to become 
a narc now might involve a whole two weeks of training. After that, 
he'd better produce some aggressive results so the county can keep 
cashing those Byrne checks. Both President Clinton and the 
conservative Heritage Foundation have called for the program's end, 
to no avail.

How race and sex persist as determining factors in arrest and trial. 
Mr. Coleman commonly used racial slurs, while a local newspaper 
headlined its report of the sting, "Tulia's Streets Cleared of 
Garbage." Most of the defendants were black or Hispanic, and a number 
had mixed-race children. The prosecutor, Mr. Blakeslee contends, 
played on all this in a rural county that had recently convicted a 
young black male of rape. Pressured by her parents, the young white 
victim denied ever knowing him (despite defense witnesses to the 
contrary). Yet she also testified this stranger had come to her house 
and she willingly gave him a ride home. At 1:30 a.m. The accused got 70 years.

With all of this and more as background, Mr. Blakeslee builds a 
dramatic, David-vs.-Goliath story, chronicling a truly rare event in 
Texas justice. How often does a poor, black, cotton baler from the 
Panhandle get his drug case fought by a half-dozen high-priced 
lawyers working pro bono? Answer: About as often as our Court of 
Criminal Appeals reverses a conviction. In spite of Tulia, most 
Texans will probably hold to a "bad apple" explanation of what 
happened. To which, one former narcotics officer makes perhaps the 
most disturbing response, as quoted by Mr. Blakeslee: "Everybody's 
talking about Tom Coleman - well, there are whole task forces of Tom 
Colemans out there."
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