HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Drug Charge Dropped In Case Criticized By Rights Groups
Pubdate: Fri, 12 Apr 2002
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2002 The New York Times Company
Author: Jim Yardley
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


HOUSTON, April 11 -- Critics of a drug sweep in the tiny West Texas town of 
Tulia won a victory this week when a felony cocaine charge against a woman 
was dropped after she proved she was in Oklahoma City on the day that an 
undercover police officer said he bought drugs from her.

The dismissal of the charge against Tonya Michelle White, 33, is the latest 
development in a 1999 drug operation that is under investigation by the 
Justice Department and has drawn widespread criticism from civil rights groups.

The operation resulted in the arrests of 46 people, all but 3 of them 
black, meaning that roughly 12 percent of the town's black population was 

Police drug operations across Texas have drawn scrutiny for months. In 
recent weeks, prosecutors in Dallas dismissed drug cases against more than 
40 defendants after it was learned that evidence turned over by an 
undercover agent was actually gypsum from wallboard, not cocaine. The 
Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into the Dallas situation.

Jeff Blackburn, a lawyer for Ms. White, said the charge against her that 
was dismissed on Tuesday further undermined the credibility of the 
undercover agent in the Tulia operation, Tom Coleman. In nearly every case, 
Mr. Coleman was the lone witness and provided the only evidence in winning 
convictions. One case has been dropped because of false identification.

Critics say Mr. Coleman operated with almost no oversight.

Former colleagues described him in documents in a dispute over custody of 
his children as a compulsive liar. Mr. Coleman has also been charged with 
misdemeanor theft of gas from a government pump while he was a sheriff's 

"This is the first time that we have proven through direct evidence that he 
made up an accusation against someone," Mr. Blackburn said of the White 
case. Last year, state lawmakers passed legislation known as the Tulia law 
that prohibits convicting a defendant solely on the testimony of an 
undercover agent.

Ms. White, who lives in Louisiana, had been a fugitive for two years before 
she turned herself in last November on a felony charge of selling 1.3 grams 
of powdered cocaine. If convicted, she would have faced five years to life 
in prison. But an investigator with Mr. Blackburn found that she had 
deposited a $168 worker's compensation check in Oklahoma City on the day 
Mr. Coleman accused her of selling drugs.

Because Ms. White had withdrawn $8 when making her deposit, the bank kept a 
record of the transaction, with her signature.

"Eight dollars saved her life," Mr. Blackburn said.

Terry McEachern, the local district attorney, said the bank document 
persuaded him to drop the charges against Ms. White. He characterized the 
case as a mistake by Mr. Coleman. Mr. McEachern said he did not think it 
suggested a pattern of deceit.

"I don't think he manufactured testimony intentionally," Mr. McEachern said 
of Mr. Coleman. Mr. McEachern noted that none of the convictions had been 
overturned by the state court of appeals.

Of the 46 people arrested, 22 were sentenced to prison. The rest received 

Mr. Blackburn said the White case could provide grounds to overturn other 
convictions. Already, national groups like the William Moses Kunstler Fund 
for Racial Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union have gotten involved.

Vanita Gupta, a spokeswoman for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational 
Fund Inc., said her group was representing two defendants in their appeals 
and had found lawyers in Washington or New York for the other 18 defendants 
who are in prison.
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