The Tulia Drug Bust revisited

I write this from a hotel room in Austin, Texas.  Later today, I will be testifying in favor of HB 834, legislation calling for the corroboration of police informant testimony.  As things presently stand, defendants in narcotics cases can be convicted if an undercover officer claims, without corroborating evidence, that the man on trial sold him or her drugs. 

I have been asked to testify as a representative of the many residents of Tulia, Texas who fought a corrupt drug bust in July of 1999.   

My first inkling that something had gone terribly wrong was a headline in the local paper: “Tulia’s streets cleared of garbage”.  Tulia is a Texas town of 5,000 midway between Amarillo and Lubbock.  The “garbage” were 47 men and women, mostly Black, who had been arrested on the uncorroborated word of a single undercover officer. 

The officer’s name was Tom Coleman, but on the Black side of Tulia, he was known by his alias: T.J. Dawson. 

My first reaction to the “garbage” headline was moral revulsion.  My second reaction was theological.  That may sound odd, but I was a preacher at the time with a PhD in theology.  A core biblical teaching, reinforced by Moses, Paul the Apostle, and Jesus himself, was that no one should be convicted on the uncorroborated word of a single individual. 

The principle is foundational; it is enshrined in the ninth commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”  Christians can’t forget that Jesus was condemned by false witnesses (Matthew 26:60).

So, the fact that men and women would be going to prison for decades on the uncorroborated word of Tom Coleman bothered me so much that I wrote a letter to the editor complaining about it.

I didn’t necessarily believe that Tom Coleman was lying.  But the article in the Tulia paper referred to the defendants as “drug kingpins”.  Patricia Kiker, my mother-in-law, mused that if Tulia had that many drug dealers everybody in town had to be strung out on crack.

The sensible thing was to speak to the families affected by the drug bust.  This wasn’t hard.  Their names and addresses were all listed in the “garbage” article.  Tulia had its fair share of drug dealers; male and female, young and old, Black, White and Latino.  But the real dealers had Tom Coleman (or T.J. Dawson) figured for a cop from the get-go.  This explains why, after six months on the street, he hadn’t logged a single case. 

Most of the defendants insisted they had never laid eyes on T.J. Dawson.  Some could prove they were out of town on the day they had allegedly sold drugs to the undercover officer. 

Tulia children waiting to sing at the Lege

Something else didn’t add up.  Drug users with little or no money use crack cocaine, but the evidence Coleman turned into the evidence room in Amarillo was almost exclusively powder cocaine, a rich man’s drug.  Many suspected that Coleman was filling baggies with baking soda and mixing in just enough cocaine to ensure the mixture tested positive. 

Defendants turned down plea offers of fifteen-to-twenty years, insisting they were innocent.  But one jury after another handed down the most draconian sentences allowed by law: forty-five years, sixty years, ninety years.  One man received six consecutive 99-year sentences. 

This placed defendants and defense attorneys in a painful place.  You could take your chances at trial; but your chances were slim-to-none.  Jurors believed Coleman because he had been hired by Larry Stewart, the Sunday School-teaching Sheriff of Swisher County. 

Slowly, the truth about Coleman leaked out.  He was a gypsy cop, moving from town-to-town.  He never stayed long in any one town because his impulsive behavior inevitably earned him a bad reputation.  Before taking the undercover job in Tulia (for a grand salary of $17,000 a year) Coleman had worked in nearby Cochran County.  After wracking up over $10,000 in bills to local merchants, Coleman skipped town in the dead of night.  In fact, in the middle of the Tulia operation, he was arrested on theft charges and taken back to Cochran County. 

Coleman’s mother lent him money to pay off his debts, the charges were dropped, and Coleman returned to Tulia.  Sheriff Stewart put his undercover man back to work without even asking why he had been arrested. 

In the fact of these scandalous revelations, a few of us (the defendants, their families, my wife, Nancy, her parents, Charles and Patricia Kiker, and a local farmer named Gary Gardner) formed Friends of Justice, a non-profit organization designed to fight the Tulia travesty.  We reached out to the NAACP, the ACLU, the Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice and the Legal Defense and Educational Fund.  We assembled our facts and contacted a small, justice-oriented publication called the Texas Observer. 

Gradually, the story came together.  Nate Blakeslee wrote a sixteen-page article for the Texas Monthly.  Sarah and Emily Kunstler produced a gripping documentary.  Vanita Gupta of the LDF flew out to investigate.  Shocked by what she discovered, Gupta used the Kunstler video to enlist the services of prestigious law firms.  Jennifer Klar, a young attorney with one of these firms, spent an entire year retracing Coleman’s career and interviewing everyone who would talk to her.

Feature articles appeared in the New York Times, the LA Times, and the Washington Post.  20/20 did a twenty-minute expose. 

Then the media story died.  Behind the scenes, however, the ACLU was using the Tulia mess to press for bi-partisan criminal justice reform.  The fifty-odd multi-county narcotics task forces in Texas were receiving unwelcome scrutiny.  One-by-one they closed up shop.

Lydia Bean sings with the children in Tulia

Friends of Justice held weekly meetings in the Bean home.  We read letters from prison.  We offered and received prayers and support.  We sang old spirituals: “Go down Moses, way down to Egypt land, tell old Pharoah to let my people go!”  We did a community inventory and discovered that more than fifty children had been orphaned by the Coleman operation.  We made sure all these kids had a place to stay.  Nancy and I gave a temporary home to three children who had lost both parents to the drug sting.

Friends of Justice organized dozens of trips to Washington DC, New York City, giving family members of the defendants a chance to tell their story.  Every few weeks, a dozen of us were heading down to the Texas Legislature in support of reform legislation.  On one occasion, we rented a bus and took fifty family members and their children to Austin.  A year after the sting, twenty drug war orphans stood on the steps of the Legislature and sang “the eyes of Texas are upon you.”

Then one morning I saw a strong headline in my newsfeed: “Kafka in Tulia.”  It was a column by Bob Herbert of the New York Times.  Herbert was captivated by the Tulia fiasco because it featured everything that was wrong with America’s war on drugs.  Before he was finished, he had dedicated over a dozen columns to the story following the narrative arc laid down by Blakeslee and the Kunstler sisters.

Attorneys defending the defendants were finally able to wrangle an evidentiary hearing.  Judge Ed Self, who had presided at most of the Coleman trials, insisted on a “paper hearing”.  Both sides would submit briefs, he would read them over, and render a ruling.  Everything would happen behind closed doors.  The media would be shut out of the process.  Judge Self, and only Judge Self, would be privy to the shocking details.

Desperate for a strategy, I had a parody piece published in an independent newspaper in nearby Plainview, Self’s hometown.  Enraged, the judge fired off a stinging rebuttal claiming that each victim of the Coleman operation had received a fair trial.  Defense counsel pounced.  Judge Self’s letter to the editor revealed that he couldn’t serve as an objective weigher of the facts. 

When Self recused himself, Judge Ron Chapman, a Dallas jurist, was assigned to the case.  Chapman called for a full hearing in the Swisher County courtroom where all the legal proceedings had unfolded. 

In the course of a week-long hearing, Tom Coleman’s sordid past was revealed in depressing detail.  Coleman made a fool of himself on the witness stand, bragging about using the n-word, claiming that he was a sinless victim of a witch hunt, and generally babbling like a madman.

I lead singing at a weenie roast

Eventually, the state threw in the towel, Judge Chapman declared that Tom Coleman was not credible under oath, all the cases based on his testimony were tossed, and, in a dramatic scene that drew a media scrum to the Swisher County courthouse, seventeen prisoners were released.

The ACLU, and other advocacy groups crafted legislation designed to prevent another Tulia.  Unfortunately, a provision calling for the corroboration of police officer testimony in narcotics cases was stripped from the bill.  Conservative legislators claimed the provision was an insult to the integrity of law enforcement.

And now, two decades later, House Bill 834 has reached the floor of the Texas Legislature.  My job will be to boil the Tulia mess into a brief cautionary tale.  Wish me luck.