I was finishing up my morning stretching ritual this morning when Wade Goodwyn’s story on Tim Cole aired on NPR. I had heard the Cole saga before, but Goodwyn has a rare gift for storytelling and his dispassionate rendition of the essential facts gave me the chills.
Dissect a case of wrongful conviction and you will find yourself at the heart of the New Jim Crow.
The problem is spiritial and it is structural.
Changes in the legal code can help, but the real problem lies in the hearts of men like Jim Bob Darnell, the former Lubbock County District Attorney who decided Tim Cole was guilty when all the facts pointed to another man. Jim Bob wanted a conviction. The rape victim thought she recognized Cole. And when a parade of Cole’s friends testified that he was at home at the time in question an all-white jury was unconvinced.
Even now, when DNA evidence clearly proves that Cole was innocent, no court in Lubbock will grant an exoneration hearing.
Earlier this week, I was talking to a religious leader from Plainview, Texas, a town of 25,000 half-way between Lubbock and Tulia. He rembered the day a local attorney dropped by to visit. The earnest young man had watched yet another miscarriage of justice and needed to talk.
“You won’t get an argument from me,” the preacher told the lawyer; “the criminal justice system in this community is evil.”
The lawyer shifted forward in his chair.
“Frankly,” he said in a half-whisper, “I’m surprised to hear you say that out loud.”
“Well, I’m just calling it the way I see it,” the preacher replied. “No one cares about the truth or the defendants; we’re just throwing lives away without remorse.”
The lawyer hesitated before speaking. Finally he said, “If I were you I’d keep thoughts like that to myself.”
I entered this barren spiritual landscape in the summer of 1999. Four months before an innocent Tim Cole succumbed to chronic asthma in his prison cell, forty-six people, all of them poor and most of them black, had been picked up in a single drug bust in Tulia, Texas.
The newspaper headline was jubilant: “City streets cleared of garbage”.
In an editorial accompanying the story, defendants were called “known drug dealers,” “scumbags” and “a cancer on the community”.
At the time I assumed that the defendants were guilty as charged. But what about the presumption of innocence and the state’s burden to prove guilt beyone a reasonable doubt?
“I don’t know much about the big drug sting,” I told our Sunday school class at the Baptist church, “but one of the local newspapers called the defendants ‘scumbags’ this week and I’m really steamed about it.”
“Scumbags is exactly what they are,” a middle-aged man seated across the table from me growled. Molten rectitude smoldered in his eyes and his mouth was twisted in rage. (A few months later, this man served as jury foreman in the trial of one of the Tulia defendants.)
When the class was over a local businessman pulled me aside. “It’s these athletes that really get me riled,” he explained. “We play them up like they’re some kinda heroes just ’cause they win us a few games, and they reckon they can get away with anything. Smoking dope, selling drugs to our kids, messing with our girls–anything! You try to do everything you can for these people to help them pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, and they disappoint you every time.”
Joe Moore was sitting in a holding cell awaiting trial when Tim Cole drew his last gasping breath in December of 1999. A plea bargain was on the table but Joe wasn’t buying.
“I ain’t gonna take no twenty-five years for something I didn’t do,” Joe Moore told his attorney. When it was explained that the sentencing range for a man with a couple of felony convictions on his record was 25 to 99 years Joe just kept shaking his head.
“I been to the penitentiary before,” Joe said, “and I done told myself I ain’t never goin’ back. Prison ain’t no place for an old man with bad knees and a sugar problem to be. I let them give me that much time I sure won’t be walkin’ out alive–they’re gonna be carrying me out feet first with a sheet over my head.”
After being convicted of selling drugs to undercover agent Tom Coleman, Joe Moore was sentenced to 90 years by a Tulia jury. It could have been worse. The single black juror was pressing for 25 years and the white jurors wanted to impose the maximum 99-year sentence. They compromised at 90 years and went to lunch.
Four years later, Joe Moore walked out of that same courthouse a free man.
He just about didn’t make it. Tim Cole succumbed to asthma; with Joe it was diabetes that nearly brought him down. When he changed prisons, an enterprising doctor decided to save the state a few dollars by taking Joe off his insulin and seeing what happened. Joe ended up on the floor of his prison cell, blind and delerious.
Fortunately for Joe, the Legal Defense Fund had just taken his case and a call from lead counsel Elaine Jones struck fear into the heart of the prison warden. Transfered to a real live hospital in Abilene, Joe gradually recovered his sight, his bearings and his appetite.
Joe Moore was a good man. A poker player, a bootlegger and woman chaser to be sure; but a good man all the same. I visited him while he was in prison and spent long hours listening to his stories after his release. Joe died in the free world and that makes me happy.
The Tulia story has been told and re-told over the years. I first met NPR’s Wade Goodwyn when he came to Tulia. Two years ago, Goodwyn’s report on Jena introduced the story to the NPR world. About a year ago, Goodwyn used my work with Friends of Justice to link “two of the biggest racial controversies of the last decade”: Jena and Tulia.
Soon, the Tulia story will return to the national spotlight in an excellent one-hour PBS documentary produced by Kelly Whalen and Cassandra Herrman. In the Dallas Area, the documentary will air on the Independent Lens program on February 10th at 9:00 pm and you can look up the time in your zip code here.
Tomorrow evening at 7:30 (and Sunday morning at 11:30) I will be discussing the Whalen-Herrman documentary on KERA’s Think along with Ron Chapman, the Dallas judge who presided over a dramatic evidentiary hearing in the spring of 2003, will also be interviewed.
As you watch the Tulia documentary, pay particular attention to Sheriff Larry Stewart, erstwhile narcotics agent Tom Coleman and a long list of local residents. As they attempt to explain their actions the spiritual dimension of the criminal justice problem snaps into focus. An article published this morning offers an apt description of the rift in Tulia:
In a letter to viewers, filmmakers Herrman and Whalen said their goal with the film was “to put the Tulia story back in the voices of those people who had lived it and to tell the story without a narrator.” There is a scene in which Coleman looks straight into the camera, his expression devoid of remorse, and says every person he arrested sold him cocaine. It’s scenes like this one that exhibit the power of such an intimate filming strategy.
Charles Kiker and Gary Gardner speak for the few white people in Tulia who expressed outrage at the arrests. Their testimonies are a stark contrast to the bitter words of jury members and residents who believed that most of “these people” would be back in prison within a few months anyway.
Charles Kiker (my father-in-law) and Gary Gardner (a retired farmer in nearby Vigo Park, Texas) represent Friends of Justice in this documentary. Listen to their comments and you feel what it means to take an unpopular stand in a small town.
In the end, however, this isn’t about the social dynamics of small communities like Tulia. Tim Cole suffered the same fate in Lubbock, a city70 miles south that is 35 times the size as Tulia. The Dallas Sheetrock scandal would have gone undetected without legislation created in response to the Tulia fiasco. This is a big city problem too, but the issues are particularly stark in little southern towns.
The problem is spiritual.
That’s why I argue that you can’t get racial justice without racial reconciliation.