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Tulia Travesty Settled for $6 Million

Tulia Travesty Settled For $6 Million

by Hans Sherrer

On August 22, 2003, Texas Governor Rick Perry pardoned 35 people whose convictions stemmed from a Swisher County drug investigation that began in 1998.

The prosecution of those people began with the arrest of 43 people in the Tulia, Texas area on July 23, 1999. All but one of those people was accused of selling less than 3.5 grams of powder cocaine _ a second degree felony punishable under Texas law by up to 20 years in prison. However many of them were accused of selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school or park _ which enhanced their alleged offense to a first degree felony punishable by life in prison.

Thirty-eight of the arrested people were subsequently convicted _ 11 after a trial and 27 by a brokered guilty plea. The many guilty pleas by people protesting their innocence followed the sentences ranging from 12 to 434 years, that were imposed on the first eight defendants convicted after a trial.

In spite of the convictions, flaws in Swisher County's investigation began appearing soon after the arrests. Most noticeably, charges against five people were dropped for reasons that included proof the person was in another state or at work, at the very time undercover sheriff deputy Tom Coleman alleged the person was making a drug deal with him at a clandestine location.

The crack in the Tulia prosecutions that ultimately led to the August 2003 pardons was first reported in June 2000 by The Texas Observer: In early 1999 Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart arrested Tom Coleman, and suspended his drug investigation after learning he had been indicted in 1997 for his theft of $6,700 in merchandise from Cochran County, Texas area merchants. Coleman was working as a Cochran County sheriff deputy at the time of the alleged thefts, and the sheriff wrote in a letter to the state agency that accredits police officers: "It is my opinion that an officer should uphold the law. Mr. Coleman should not be in law enforcement."

However instead of firing Coleman, Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart reinstated him to resume the drug investigation after he reimbursed the merchants for the value of the stolen merchandise.

Furthermore, when defense attorneys filed a motion detailing Coleman's checkered conduct that cast doubt on his credibility, Swisher County District Judge Edward Self's response was to immediately seal the motion and bar introduction of any evidence that could impeach his testimony. Judge Self issued his order prior to the second trial, so over three dozen people were convicted on the basis of Coleman's word _ after Swisher County's prosecutor, sheriff and judges were aware Coleman was an unreliable witness.

Unable to get relief from a Texas court for the misjustices inflicted on his Tulia clients, Amarillo attorney Jeff Blackburn turned to the media to publicize their plight. Articles in national publications that included the New York Times and Time magazine followed, and several national organizations, including the William Kuntsler Foundation, the NAACP, and the ACLU, became involved.

Although it took several years, those media efforts paid off when in early 2003 the Texas Court of Appeals ordered an evidentiary hearing to clarify whether the defendants in four cases were convicted solely on the evidence of Tom Coleman's word. On March 20, 2003, Tom Coleman affirmatively answered that question when during his testimony at the hearing he responded, "Yes," to a defense lawyer's question, "But for your word, there is really no evidence that any of these alleged buys took place?" In addition, Coleman was unable to affirmatively state that he believed any of the Tulia defendants were guilty: In response to that question he answered, "I'm pretty sure."

After Coleman's testimony, 35 Tulia defendants agreed to a lump sum payout of $250,000 in exchange for the State's special prosecutor agreeing to a stipulation that Tom Coleman "is simply not a credible witness under oath," and support for reversal of their convictions. The judge accepted the brokered deal on April 1st, and said he would submit his findings and recommendation to the Court of Appeals that the convictions be vacated. While the appeals court was reviewing the cases, on July 30, 2003 the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles recommended that the governor pardon the 35 defendants eligible for executive clemency. On August 22, 2003 Governor Rick Perry pardoned those defendants. One effect of the pardons was to invalidate the agreement approved by the judge on April 1st.

In the years following the arrests during the July 23, 1999 sweep, several federal civil rights lawsuits were filed against a variety of defendants by people who were arrested _ but not convicted. As the Tulia cases unraveled from June 2000 to August 2003, a multitude of cities, counties and individuals became vulnerable to a lawsuit, because the Tulia drug investigation was paid for, and conducted under the auspices of The Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force (Task Force). Thirty cities and counties were members of the Task Force. The city of Amarillo, 44 miles from Tulia, was the lead Task Force member and the one with the deepest pockets, so it was facing the largest potential liability.

On March 11, 2004, a global settlement of all pending lawsuits naming the city of Amarillo as a defendant was announced between the city and the total of 45 people still alive (one is deceased), who had been arrested as a result of Coleman's investigation. The city of Amarillo agreed to pay $5 million and pull-out of the Task Force on June 1, 2004, when its 2003-2004 operating grant of $1,522,418 expired. City Attorney Marcus Norris said the city recognized the "misjustice" committed by the task force.

Amarillo Mayor Trent Sisemore said the city agreed to a global settlement to prevent a potentially devastating judgment, "The lawsuit had the potential to cause many cities in the Panhandle to become insolvent." Additionally, defending against the lawsuits would have involved Amarillo's defense of the Tulia investigations, which the city had already admitted was flawed. As city Attorney Norris observed, "The city of Amarillo did not feel comfortable standing behind an agent who has been discredited numerous times and who is not the caliber that would be employed by the city of Amarillo."

In April 2004 the lawsuits' other defendants, 29 Texas panhandle counties and cities, settled the claims against them for $1 million. The $1 million settlement is comprised of payments ranging from $5,000 to $80,000 by 26 counties and 3 cities.

The Tulia defendants signed contracts assigning 1/3rd of the settlement to their lawyers. However some of the lawyers involved were working pro bono, so their payout will exceed 2/3rds of the total $6 million settlement. A claims administrator will determine the payout to each person using a formula taking into consideration various individual factors, including whether the person was convicted and the length of their time in custody. However it is divided up, the average payout to the 45 Tulia arrestees will exceed $89,000.

As had been expected, the Task Force dissolved on June 1, 2004.

Sources: Amarillo Globe-News, Justice Denied magazine.

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