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.