Joe Welton Moore of Tulia, Texas is dead at sixty-five.
Known as “Bootie Wootie” (or just “Bootie”) by his friends, Mr. Moore was a longtime fixture in Tulia’s black community. Joe came to Tulia in the early 1950s when his father, an east Texas share cropper, decided to relocate to the Texas panhandle after the advent of irrigation made the semi-desert of Swisher County bloom like a rose. The family settled into the Sunset Addition, a segregation-era shantytown across the tracks from the white folks in Tulia.
Joe Moore was a man of many talents. During the high points of the agricultural calendar, Joe would organize hay hauling and cotton picking crews. As the unofficial mayor of Sunset, the big man ran a bootleg bar in dry Swisher County and served as an unoffical bank, loaning money at interest. People would gather in Funz-a-Poppin’ in the evening to shoot pool, play dominoes and poker, and drink beer.
The authorities knew what Joe was up to but they learned to look the other way. Joe tells me that he was pulled over now and then just for show. A Tulia cop once said, “Joe, you gotta start moving a better brand of whiskey. That rot gut we took off you last time tasted like horse piss.”
“I always felt like Joe was performing a public service,” a former Tulia mayor once told me. “Tulia was officially dry, but everybody knew where to go for a drink if they wanted one.”
Joe Moore will be remembered as the big hog farmer who received 90 years after being accused of selling dope to Tom Coleman, a white undercover officer. Joe was the first of 47 defendants to go to trial and his conviction at the end of a lightning-fast trial sent a cold wave of dread shuddering through Tulia’s black community. Before long, younger defendants were lining up to accept plea agreements. Only a few defendants were willing to roll the dice with Tulia juries. They were all found guilty in day-long trials and sentenced to between 20 and 99 years.
Friends of Justice was organized as an alliance of sting defendants, their families and a small group of white residents who didn’t think a dog should be convicted on Tom Coleman’s uncorroborated testimony.
About the time the Tulia story first made the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post, a white farmer named Gary Gardner decided he wanted to write a writ of habeas corpus for Joe Moore. Gary and Joe had little in common beyond the fact that both men were well over three hundred pounds and the stout wheat farmer had used the Mayor of Sunset on his farm a time or two. But Gary was convinced that if all the pertinent facts surrounding Tulia’s notorious drug bust could be gathered into a single document the dominoes would begin to fall.
Gary Gardiner was no lawyer, but he had written dozens of cartoonish legal briefs in the course of a long fight with the Tulia school board. I offered to proof read Gary’s writ, offering the occasional suggestions as the document progressed. Generally, however, I didn’t mess with Gary’s legal arguments and he didn’t question my radical modifications of his prose. By the time we set to work, the Tulia drug bust had faded from public attention.
Joe Moore was thrilled to learn that somebody on the outside was trying to help. By this time, Friends of Justice was corresponding with two dozen inmates locked up on Tom Coleman’s word, but the only legal action in the works was a futile attempt to make lawyers a quick buck through civil law suits. I kept getting letters from prisoners wondering what was being done to help them. The answer, unfortunately, was nothing . . . apart from our Quixotic writ written on Joe Moore’s behalf.
Even though Gary and I were the only real legal game in town, the real lawyers of the world were horrified by our amateur writ. “Do you want Joe Moore to die in prison?” one attorney asked me.
Frankly, I didn’t think our massive document would convince a Texas appeals court. But by forging all the damning facts about Tom Coleman and his employers into one extended arguement, our writ served as an excellent foundation for genuine attorneys to build on.
Joe Moore wasn’t deterred by our critics. When I visited him with his old friend, Thelma Johnson, he told me that he would take any help that was offered. “You couldn’t do worse for me than the lawyer I had at trial,” he said. “At least you’re on my side.”
Just when the drama between Friends of Justice and the legal community had reached a crisis point, a young attorney from New York named Vanita Gupta arrived in Tulia. Although she was warned to avoid Bean and Gardner, Vanita was willing to accept help from any quarter. Returning to New York with her suitcase crammed with legal documents (including a copy of our 200-page writ) Vanita flogged the Tulia story to the Legal Defense Fund and some of the best silk-tie law firms in New York and Washington DC.
For Joe Moore, the involvement of Yankee lawyers came not a moment too soon. Transferred from one Abilene, Texas prison to another, Joe found himself under the care of an underpaid quack who thought he might save the Texas treasury a few bucks by taking Joe off his insulin. Joe was blind, delerious and on the point of death when the prison warden got a call from Elaine Jones, Lead Counsel for the Legal Defense and Joe’s New York legal team.
In a panic, the warden had Joe transferred to a real hospital in Abilene where his problem was quickly diagnosed and dealt with. Joe’s health had recovered considerably when the good news arrived three years after his 1999 conviction–the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had called for an evidentiary hearing into the first four Tulia cases to go to trial.
No one was expecting much. Judge Ed Self had presided over most of the Tulia drug trials and he was still in charge of the evidentiary process and he was requesting legal briefs from both sides instead of an actual hearing. Fortunately, the daughter of the Swisher County Sheriff wrote a letter to the Tulia Herald pointing out that Charles Kiker and Alan Bean of the hated Friends of Justice had contributed money to the campaign of Mr. Self’s opponent.
I responded with a letter arguing that the sheriff’s daughter had it right: a vote for Ed Self was a vote for the ethically challenged Tom Coleman.
Judge Self rose to the bait. Alan Bean and Gary Gardner, as non-lawyers, were incapable of commenting intelligently on the Tulia cases, he wrote to the Tulia Herald. Besides, the legal process in the Coleman cases had been immaculate from first to last.
Self had pre-judged the issue at bar. Within days of writing his fateful letter he was forced to recuse himself. In the spring of 2003, Joe Moore and three youthful co-defendants were on their way back to the Swisher County courtroom where they had been tried and convicted. An army of top-drawer legal talent under the generalship of Vanita Gupta was also headed to Tulia. Coleman’s erstwhile supporters were in panic mode.
One of Joe Moore’s attorneys later told me that writing Joe’s writ had been relatively simple. “You and Gary laid out all the facts,” he said, “we just had to put your arguments into standard legal form.”
Joe Moore and his young friends sat in the jury box during the week long evidentiary hearing that exposed Tom Coleman as a lying, racist fool. “I really enjoyed myself in there,” Joe told me at the time. “Just watching old Tom Coleman get all tangled up in his lies was a real treat.”
Joe Moore could have been released a few days after the hearing if he had insisted. But for the eventual deal to have universal application Joe and his friends had to remain behind bars a few more months. Joe desperately desired his freedom–but he wanted justice more.
By June of 2003, Joe Moore was back in the free world after spending three-and-a-half years behind bars. His diabetes was still bad, his knees were shot, and he was suffering from the heart disease that would eventually take him down; but he was alive and he was free.
A year later, at the conclusion of a mammoth civil rights suit, Joe received over a quarter million dollars from the people who had put him in prison. He bought a used Ford Expedition that has carried dozens of black children to Friends of Justice sponsored events all over the panhandle. Then, with the kind assistance of friend of justice Charles Kiker, a retired preacher and former real estate man, Joe bought a little hog farm (see picture above).
Joe Moore was in and out of the hospital for the last couple of years as his heart gradually gave out. He had lived a long and good life that veered off into tragedy and ended in triumph. Bootie will be remembered fondly by all who knew him.