HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html One Bad Agent, One Failed System of Justice in
Pubdate: Tue, 29 Apr 2003
Source: Austin American-Statesman (TX)
Copyright: 2003 Austin American-Statesman
Author: Alberta Phillips, Austin American-Statesman
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)
Bookmark: (Perjury)


1999: Tom Coleman, Texas Lawman of the Year.

2003: Tom Coleman, liar.

The latter is the finding of a Swisher County grand jury that indicted 
Coleman last week on three felony perjury charges accusing him of lying on 
the witness stand in March.

Coleman was the lone undercover agent in the 1999 drug busts that resulted 
in the arrests of nearly a tenth of Tulia's small African American 
population. His uncorroborated testimony convicted 38 people, sending more 
than two dozen to prison for terms ranging from 20 years to 90 years.

Thirteen defendants are languishing in prison despite a judge's 
recommendation this month to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that 
convictions of the Tulia 38 be thrown out.

The indictments are another indication that justice in Tulia certainly was 
deaf and dumb, but hardly blind. White jury after white jury convicted 
black residents solely on the say-so of Coleman, who is white. It's 
heartening to see a grand jury finally deal with a rogue cop whose apparent 
lies stole years of people's lives. But it shouldn't end with Coleman, a 
small fish. A grand jury should now focus on the bigger members of that 
school -- the prosecutors, sheriff and others -- who robbed defendants of 
their right to a fair trial by suppressing evidence about Coleman's tainted 
law enforcement record.

Last month, special prosecutor Rod Hobson squared off against several 
lawyers working pro bono in new hearings ordered by the state court of 
criminal appeals. The court had ordered the hearings to determine whether 
four Tulia defendants were convicted solely on Coleman's word and whether 
the state failed to turn over information about Coleman that that may have 
cast doubt about his credibility.

Coleman, ponytailed and clad in a black leather jacket, was evasive in new 
hearings, a striking contrast to the cocky law officer who testified 
against defendants years earlier.

Back then, his recall was so good, he didn't need paper and pencil to 
record drug stings. He didn't use tape recorders or bother with video. 
Though the supposed drug buys were made in public places, Coleman had no 
witnesses. Fingerprints? Corroborating evidence? Didn't need those, either.

Believing Coleman was a stretch, but one jurors made easily. It meant that 
46 Tulia residents were trafficking powder cocaine in this Panhandle 
backwater town of 5,000. Coleman fingered Joe Moore as the "drug king pin." 
At 57, Moore looked more like the hog farmer he was than drug lord. Moore, 
who suffers from severe diabetes, was sentenced to 90 years in prison. It 
gets more unbelievable. Coleman kept track of all those drug buys by 
scribbling them on his leg. Don't ask what happened when he showered. A 
jury didn't.

But Coleman's crack memory failed him a number of times last month under 
the dogged examination of Mitch Zamoff, a former U.S. assistant attorney in 
Philadelphia. Zamoff is a member of the legal team that represented Tulia 

"It's an interesting turn of events," said Zamoff, a partner in Washington 
D.C.-based firm Hogan & Hartson. "The people of Swisher County will have 
the opportunity to sit in judgment of him. We hope that justice is done."

According to the indictment, Coleman testified he learned he was facing 
theft charges in August 1998 when Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart told 
him there was a warrant for his arrest. But other testimony he gave and 
evidence indicated Coleman knew months earlier -- in May 1998 -- about the 
theft charge. Before working undercover in Swisher County, Coleman had been 
a deputy in Cochran County. That county had issued a warrant for his arrest 
in the summer of 1998 for stealing county-owned gasoline two years before. 
Charges were dismissed after Coleman made restitution.

The indictment also stated that Coleman lied about whether he told the 
Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education, as 
required, that he had been arrested. No doubt Swisher County would love to 
end the Tulia tragedy with Coleman. He's an easy target and provides a 
convenient exit strategy for Swisher County and for the office of Texas 
Attorney General Greg Abbott and the U.S. Department of Justice, both of 
which are investigating the case.

But making this case about one bad cop is way too simple. The Tulia story 
is really about the failure of an entire system.
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