Pubdate: Sat, 31 Dec 2005
Source: AlterNet (US Web)
Copyright: 2005 Independent Media Institute
Author: Sarah Shemkus, The American Prospect
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


Early one morning in 1999, dozens of young men, most of them black,
were rounded up by police in Tulia, Texas, and charged with dealing
cocaine. Texas Observer reporter Nate Blakeslee discussed the
defendants' eventual exoneration, the corruption of the system, and his
new book, Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town.

What was it about what happened in Tulia that caught your

The first I heard about Tulia was after the bust had taken place and
there had been about five trials. No one was accused of dealing more
than a few hundred dollars' worth of cocaine, but the juries were
handing down these amazingly long sentences.

My idea for the story was to interview these rural jurors and ask them
what is it about dealing that they think is morally equivalent to
murdering someone. It wasn't until I started interviewing defendants
and their families and their attorneys that it became evident that it
was also a story about a corrupt narcotics officer. Then the question
became, were the cases even real to begin with?

How did a man like undercover agent Tom Coleman ever get hired for a
law enforcement position in the first place?

It's a breakdown in the criminal justice system on so many different
levels that it's hard to know where to begin. First and foremost, I
think you have to talk about this federal program that funded the
operation. It's known as the Byrne grant. It was hatched in the late
'80s, at the height of the drug war. The idea was that the federal
government couldn't get a DEA agent in every little town, but they
could persuade rural sheriffs to get involved through this grant
program. The attitude was that anybody can do narcotics. I think what
Tulia has proved is that really that's not true.

What does the story of Tulia reveal about the larger landscape of the
national war on drugs?

I think it shows the decline in standards of law enforcement that has
come along with the Byrne Grant task force program. And it's not just
in Texas; these grants are funding similar drug task forces in almost
all rural and suburban areas in the United States. I think it just
shows, over time, that the loftier goals of the drug war seem to be

Everyone had the same goal at the outset, which was to reduce drug
addiction and the problems that come along with it. After 20 years
it's become like any other federal program; it's become a bureaucracy.
In fact many of these task forces, especially in Texas, all they
really do is go after the low-level users and dealers -- they're
basically just arresting the same people over and over again, often
just the addicts themselves.

How could an incident of this scale even happen in the first

In addition to the Byrne Grant program, the big one that you have to
look at is Texas' system of appointing indigent defense. It was up to
each judge in Texas to decide how he wanted to do it himself. You can
imagine what a low priority it is in some of these conservative,
law-and-order communities to make sure someone gets fair
representation if they can't afford an attorney and they've been
busted for drugs.

The very first trial of the whole Tulia thing was a good example. The
defendant's name was Joe Moore, 57 years old. He was accused of
delivering $200 worth of cocaine, but Mr. Moore had an enhancement
because he had a prior felony. He was looking at up to 99 years. His
court-appointed attorney met with him two times, called no witnesses
on Joe's behalf during the guilt-innocence phase of the trial. They
did jury selection in the morning at about 9 o'clock, and by 6 p.m.,
he had a 90-year sentence. It was just so shockingly efficient.

What role did racism play in the events?

I don't think that there's anything uniquely racist about the town of
Tulia. I think the scandal could have happened in just about any town
in America. You do have to talk about race when you look at the
sentences, and when you look at the incredibly flimsy evidence on
which these people were convicted: the word of one undercover cop with
a terribly checkered history who never wore a wire or had video or any
other evidence to corroborate his story.

There's a long tradition that dates back to the segregation era, where
black communities that used to exist outside city limits were
identified with vice and lawlessness. That old stereotype that all the
evil in town is rooted in the black community has died hard. That's
partly what went into the minds of these jurors -- that this was a
chance for them to do something about that.

Did you believe that the men would ultimately be freed?

It certainly didn't look like they would be. It became this huge
national story, and laws were passed in the Texas legislature -- how
can we prevent another Tulia? There were talks of hearings on Capitol
Hill. Meanwhile, you still got two dozen people sitting in prison, but
very little is being done to get them out. There was a long lull in
which some people were quietly working on their cases. There was this
call to prevent another Tulia that seemed to drown out the call to get
the victims of the original Tulia out of prison. It wasn't until a
couple of years later that the ball really got rolling on the
post-conviction work.

One very noticeable aspect of your approach to the story is the depth
with which you discuss the backgrounds and ancestry of even the most
minor figures. What was the importance of addressing individual
histories so deeply?

I wanted people to care about the characters in the book. There's 2
million people locked up in the United States -- the drug war has
fueled the huge increase in incarceration rates. It's easy to let that
glance off your consciousness when it's just numbers. I wanted people
to understand that these were people who were falsely accused and
locked up. Some of these guys did not have good reputations in town
and some of them had past brushes with the law or drug problems. But
even somebody, you might even say particularly somebody, that has a
questionable reputation is entitled to due process and a fair shake in
the legal system.

What happened to the figures of authority who let this whole scandal
occur in the first place?

Tom Coleman was indicted for perjury. I think some would question
whether or not 10 years' probation is an adequate sentence after some
of the people he accused did four years in prison before they were
exonerated. He'll never be a police officer again, which you'd like to
think was a given.

The district attorney, who certainly has to shoulder a lot of the
blame, was defeated by the voters -- curiously, not principally
because of the scandal, but because he got a DWI charge.

One judge presided over most of the Tulia cases, Judge Ed Self, and
there were many opportunities at which he could have stopped this
whole scandal. He in particular witnessed Coleman perjuring himself at
an early trial and apparently made a decision to allow him to continue
to testify. Nothing has happened to him.

The sheriff who actually hired Tom Coleman and has stood by him even
to this day is still the sheriff. He was re-elected at height of
controversy. He's a really trusted and respected figure in Swisher

Looking back at the whole story now, what is the most tragic part of
the whole affair?

The time that was lost by these people and by their families. You
can't ever compensate someone for spending four years in prison for
something they didn't do. If the system requires four years to fix a
problem that never should have occurred in the first place, then it is
obviously broken. I am sure these guys felt like they were rotting
away in there and everyone had forgotten about them.
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