Tulia ten years on

July 23, 2009 marks the 10th anniversary of the Tulia drug sting.  Early that morning, officers from a dozen Panhandle law enforcement agencies fanned out across the poor end of Tulia, rousting unsuspecting defendants from their beds and parading them before the television cameras.  Although the raids turned up no drugs and no large sums of money, undercover agent Tom Coleman assured reporters that every defendant had been carefully identified. 

Friends of Justice formed a few months later.  We didn’t believe Coleman and we didn’t believe we should have to.  If the deals were good, where was the evidence?  Was it wise, or just, to passively accept the uncorroborated testimony of a man who had been arrested on theft charges in the middle of an eighteen-month operation?

On the tenth anniversary of the Tulia sting the Amarillo Globe-News interviewed several of the key figures on both sides of the controversy for a feature story that ran in the Sunday newspaper.

The woman who interviewed me over the phone had little first-hand knowledge of the controversy and the story is told as if no one from outside the Panhandle played a meaningful role.  In reality, it took the concerted (and sometimes disconcerted) efforts of a massive coalition to win justice in Tulia. 

As Scott Henson suggests in Grits for Breakfast, the key issue in Tulia was the sufficiency of evidence. This point was hammered home in the writ Friends of Justice wrote for defendant Joe Moore.  Gary Gardner argued that, in the absence of corroborating evidence, if the cop says the deal went down and the defendant says it didn’t, you have reasonable doubt.

The presumption of innocence is meaningless if it can be rebutted by “one man pointing”. 

In Tulia, the Coleman sting isn’t a fading memory.  On Saturday, I attended Tulia’s annual Picnic, eating barbecue under the same pavillion where, exactly eight years earlier, we held a Never Again rally to protest the Coleman operation.  Earlier in the day, I had been editing the final draft of my book, Taking out the trash in Tulia, Texas.  As I waited in line for ice cream the story was fresh in my mind.

“And who are you?”  The question came from an attractive seventy-something woman with a broad Panhandle smile.

“I’m Alan Bean,” I said.

Her visage clouded.  “Oh,” she said, “I’ve heard a lot about you, and I’m afraid it’s all been bad.  I hate to say so, but it’s true.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I replied, “but I’m still Alan Bean.”

The next day I read the Globe-News tenth anniversary story  just before we headed off to the Culwell-Moore family reunion.  The issue divided my wife Nancy’s family.  Some of our most adamant opponents were close kin. 

If the article re-opened old wounds folks at the reunion were too polite to let it show. 

Scott Henson doubts there is a clear lesson about small-town racism to be discerned from the Tulia story.  Certainly, the “racist town railroads innocent black folks” story line doesn’t ring true for those best acquainted with the facts. 

Tulia is a story about small town justice.  Defendants were considered guilty because they hailed from the wrong kind of family on the wrong side of the tracks.  Everybody knew what “those people” were like.  The presumption of innocence didn’t apply.

Tulia shows how the dynamics of small town life distort the criminal justice system.  Any resident voting “not guilty” would have been excommunicated by the rest of the community.  It would have taken uncommon courage and independence of thought to hold the state to it’s full burden . . . supposing anyone was inclined to.

A similar scenario plays out in jury rooms across the nation.  Holdout jurors rarely hold out for long.  But the paths of big-city jurors are unlikely to cross.  You can take a stand on principle without surrending your place in society.

In small towns like Tulia, Texas, Jena, Louisiana and Winona, Mississippi the price of non-conformity is staggering.

4 thoughts on “Tulia ten years on

  1. I was particularly disappointed in the response Alan got from the good looking seventy something gal. She’s from Amarillo, but a THS grad at picnic to celebrate the class of 50 59th graduation anniversary. About half the class still survives, and probably more than half of those still surviving showed up for our class reunion, largely because we were honoring our 89 year old class sponsor who wanted to meet this year rather than waiting for our 60th anniversary. Her son brought her over from Albuquerque, NM. A very classy lady

    Racism in Tulia? I have insisted from day one that Tulia is not uniquely racist. Was one of the first towns in the area to integrate the public schools. Some Tulia black folks have unpleasant memories of the early days of school integration. Three have reported separately that the Jr. Hi principal referred to the black students as “Little black spider monkeys.” Lynching is not part of our history, and by the time of the drug sting overt, Jim Crow style racism had pretty well disappeared from Tulia. We do have a few old style racists remaining, but if they in prominent places they keep quiet about it.

    The sin of Tulia, and of the nation at large, is the implicit trust placed in the criminal justice system. If the system says they done it, then they musta done it.

    It is frequently stated that Tulia proves the system works. But justice had to be pryed from the system with a crow bar. Without Friends of Justice in Tulia, the ACLU and the Texas Observer in Texas, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and its cadre of committed attorneys from New York and Washington, and without Judge Ron Chapman who let the truth come out in the evidentiary hearings, the Tulia Drug Sting would have sailed under the radar and Tom Coleman would still be a hero. (By the way, Tom Coleman’s Lawman of the Year award for 1999, bestowed upon him by then Attorney General of Texas, now U. S. Senator from Texas, has never been withdrawn.)

  2. Very well done story .I am waiting anxiously for the book .Thank you for exposing , and bringing justice to Tulia.

  3. I wish those people who claim to love Christ could all learn from you and your family.
    White supremacy or for that matter any supremacy group surely does not know HIM any more than those people who think killing babies is a sin a yet applaud the killing of a doctor.
    May GOD forgive them maybe it’ll teach them a lesson

  4. BTW, the Texas AG now US Senator who bestowed the award on Coleman, is John Cornyn. ACLU asked him to withdraw the recognition, and he refused. So John Cornyn supports a convicted perjurer.

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