Category: Tulia

Frontline’s “Death by Fire” is superb television

The Frontline treatment of the Cameron Todd Willingham saga is gripping, balanced and provocative.  Don’t worry if you missed it; you can watch the entire program online.

Hour-long documentaries are frequently crammed with fluff and filler, but the Willingham case demands in-depth treatment to be understood and “Death by Fire” delivers.  Here are some of the conclusions: (more…)

Tulia script plays out in southern Louisiana

Sheriff Greg Champagne of St. Charles Parish reported yesterday that 70 narcotics cases made by a single undercover officer are being dismissed.  Elijah Gary, the officer responsible for making almost 100 cases in the Parish, was on loan from a neighboring Parish (see Times-Picayune article below for the details).  When it was discovered that Mr. Gary had been convicted of domestic abuse and violating a restraining order, he was taken in for questioning.  Beating up a girlfriend and violating a restraining order doesn’t disqualify an undercover cop–lying about it does.

Several attorney friends sent me this story yesterday because of the obvious parallels between Elijah Gary and Tom Coleman, the Texas “officer of the year” who implicated 47 residents of Tulia, Texas in 1999.   According to the Times-Picayune story, “[Sheriff] Champagne’s office received the Crimestoppers Law Enforcement Award at the 25th annual Crimestoppers luncheon in March in New Orleans” on the strength of Elijah Gary’s work.  (more…)

Standing up for guilty defendants

Michelle Alexander says the criminal justice reform movement should shed its fixation with innocence.  In her groundbreaking book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Alexander suggests that reformers start focusing on normal defendants.  Since most criminal defendants done the deed, that means going to bat for guilty people.  Why would we want to do that? (more…)

Orlando Patterson’s quiet revolution

Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson makes two major claims in this stimulating op-ed piece in the New York Times. First, he suggests that racism has changed its shape without losing its power.  This means that a black president must never address the race issue directly.

Patterson understands the historical roots of American racism as well as any living American scholar.  Here’s his mini-lecture on the subject:

We became this way because of the peculiar tragedies and triumphs of our past. Race and racism scar all advanced nations, but America is peculiar because slavery thrived internally and race became a defining feature of personal identity.

Slavery was quintessentially an institution of exclusion: the slave first and foremost was someone who did not belong to and had no claims on the public order, nor any legitimate private existence, since both were appropriated by the slaveholder. The Act of Emancipation abolished only the first part of slavery, the master’s ownership; far from removing the concept of the ex-slave as someone who did not belong, it reinforced it. The nightmare of the Jim Crow era then extended and reinforced the public slavery of black Americans right up through the middle of the 20th century.

At the same time, the status of blacks as permanent outsiders made whiteness a treasured personal attribute in a manner inconceivable to Europeans. Whiteness had no real meaning to pre-immigration Swedes or Irishmen because they were all white. But it became meaningful the moment they landed in America, where it was eagerly embraced as a free cultural resource in assimilating to the white republic. In America race had the same significance as gender and age as defining qualities of personhood.

The civil rights movement opened up new opportunities for educated people of color by abolishing “the lingering public culture of slavery”, but while black people have made great strides in the entertainment, athletic and political fields, the social segregation in America has actually deepened.  African Americans are still perceived to be “culturally different”, Patterson writes, and “In the disciplined cultural spaces of marriages, homes, neighborhoods, schools and churches, these same differences become the source of Apollonian dread.”

Social isolation means that white Americans have a hard time grasping the individuality of black Americans.  As a result, the pathologies of the few are attributed to the many.  Although the relationship between social pathology and bad public policy is simply assumed in the academic community, a black president must never appear to be making excuses for absentee dads and street-hardened thugs if he wants white votes.

I’m not sure if Patterson is trying to describe the president’s thinking in this op-ed, or if he is telling Obama how he ought to think.  Maybe he’s doing both.  Obama, Patterson suggests, must never lecture white America about race.  In the wake of the Jeremiah Wright controversy, Obama had to speak out to keep the race issue from derailing his candidacy.  But since entering the White House, he has made only one foray into racial politics (his remarks about the Gates-Crowley affair) and Patterson sees that as an unmitigated disaster. 

Therefore, the professor says, America’s first black president “will not be leading any national conversations on race, convinced as he must be that they exacerbate rather than illuminate.” 

Patterson seems to agree with this stark assessment.

Are white Americans so ignorant and reflexively defensive that they can’t engage in an intelligent give-and-take on the subject of race?

So progressive analysts seem to believe.  So it has always been.  The NAACP was horrified by Martin Luther King’s practice of non-violent direct action because the strategy invited a violent white backlash.  King persisted because he knew the sheer pathology of the typical white reaction to marches, buoycotts and sit-ins exposed the irrational hatred at the heart of racist public policy. 

Similarly, the Freedom Rides of 1961 received negative reviews from the mainstream press.  It was generally assumed that anyone foolish enough to sit in the front section of a bus in Alabama or Mississippi had only themselves to blame if they received a brutal beating.  But every Freedom Rider sent from Jackson to the notorious Parchman prison in the Mississippi Delta weakened the position of Southern politicians.  Ultimately, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy pressured the Interstate Commerce Commission into changing the law.

Only after non-violent and inter-racial strategies were abandoned did a conservative backlash against civil rights take hold in America.   For an entire decade, the conflict between civil rights and states rights shaped the way Americans thought about the past and the present.  The living narratives unleashed by non-violent direct action seized white America by the throat.  The strategy was daring, dangerous and uniquely effective.  Civil rights activists created a social crisis in America and waited for the truth to surface.

The narrative strategy Friends of Justice employs is rooted in the early civil rights movement.  By taking hold of the narrative surrounding actual criminal cases we spark an intense conversation about race and justice.  Initially, public officials ignore us.  When that doesn’t work they attempt try to spin the story in their own favor.  In the resulting clash of narratives the truth ultimately rises to the surface.  Not everybody sees it, of course.  Some folks remain convinced that Tom Coleman made good cases in Tulia or that the nooses hanging from a tree in Jena held no racial significance.  But Jena changed the way school administrators think across America, Tulia led to widespread reforms and the Colomb case (though it gained less publicity than Jena and Tulia) exposed fundamental flaws in federal conspiracy law

Orlando Patterson hopes Barack Obama can “quietly” reform the criminal justice system.  Not by himself, he can’t.  Our punitive justice system was shaped by tough-on-crime politicians exploiting and feeding public fears at the top of their lungs.  There was nothing subtle or “quiet” about this process.  Divisive and damaging narratives about crack babies and inner city thugs built the present system and only healing justice narratives can take it apart.  

Conservative politicians could afford to be speak loudly because they reflected the zeitgeist.  White people were angry, afraid and in the majority.  Progressive leaders must wait for somebody else to change the tenor of the conversation, but if everyone is quiet nothing will change.

White skin is no barrier to reflection and repentance.  Given the right environment, all people can learn.  But there will be nothing quiet about the process.  “You shall know the truth,” Jesus tells us, “and the truth shall set you free.”  Politically nuanced fudge phrases are good for winning elections but they will never reveal truth or expose lies. 

Orlando Patterson is right about one thing: a sitting president can’t be the standard-bearer for a twenty-first century civil rights movement.  Barack Obama shouldn’t take the lead in the conversation about race and justice–but he has already changed the context in which that conversation unfolds.  It’s up to the rest of us to speak the loud truth without apology.

Dirty Dallas cop reveals a culture change

This is NOT a story about Tom Coleman, the undercover cop of Tulia infamy.  So why does his picture appear at the head of this post?  Because the Dallas Morning News story below can only be understood in the context of Coleman, the Dallas Sheetroock scandal, and drug war horror stories of that particular genre. 

Sgt. Randy Sundquist lied on the witness stand 15 years ago.   He was also accused of fabricating evidence.  On the strength of these serious accusations, it was determined that Sundquist should be severed from the Dallas Police Department. 

Shortly thereafter, somebody decided that Sundquist should be re-hired.  He was a good, gung-ho narcotics cop and these guys, given the corrupt contours of the drug war, are worth their weight in gold. 

It is asserted below that the DPD and the Dallas County DA’s office must have forgotten that Sundquist had been exposed as a liar.  Why else would he be allowed to testify against scores of drug defendants in open court?  Surely you wouldn’t use a guy with a reputation for dishonesty (and mental instability) as a witness in narcotics cases!  Why, innocent people might go to prison, and we sure don’t want that to happen.

This is where Tom Coleman comes in.  Everybody in Tulia and Amarillo knew that Coleman had a reputation for dishonesty.  His former employers had told them so.  A letter to that effect was in Coleman’s TCLEOSE file in Austin. 

Nobody cared.  Coleman was a gung-ho narcotics cop and guys like that . . .

This is a story about culture change. 

The old DA’s office ran by the inherited dictates of win-at-all-costs prosecutor Henry Wade.  They wouldn’t mind using a guy like Sundquist on the stand so long as nobody noticed.  The new DA’s office is run by Craig Watkins and Walkins does mind.  Because Watkins minds the entire DA’s office is minding.  Because the DA’s office minds the DPD has little choice but to mind as well.

In other words, Watkins is lifting the bar of professional ethics by several notches.

Of am I being overly cynical?  Let me know what you think.

A disclaimer: I am not suggesting that all, or even most Dallas cops would stoop to the low-down tactics described in the well-written article below.  I am saying that those who do have traditionally been prized by law enforcement and the prosecutorial arm because the war on drugs, in anything like its present form, would be impossible to wage without them.

Dallas police officer’s testimony may taint dozens of cases

Thursday, April 30, 2009

By TANYA EISERER / The Dallas Morning News

The Dallas County district attorney’s office may have to throw out dozens of cases after learning that a police sergeant officially branded a liar 15 years ago continued to testify in criminal courts.

A letter released Wednesday by the district attorney’s office to Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle says Sgt. Randy Sundquist shouldn’t be trusted to testify in court. The unusual move comes after the office discovered a similar notice had been issued in 1994, but was largely ignored.

It is unknown exactly how many past and pending cases might be affected by Sundquist’s testimony, but in a recent court hearing, Sundquist estimated that he had taken the stand between 50 and 100 times since 1995.

“We have to look at what role he played and whether or not we can make the case without his testimony,” First Assistant District Attorney Terri Moore said Wednesday. “If we can’t make the case without his testimony, then that case is going to be dismissed.”

In 1994, police investigators found, among other things, that Sundquist conducted an illegal search, lied to internal investigators and caused false information to be entered into an arrest report. The notice issued to then-Police Chief Ben Click stated that, due to his record, he should not be allowed to testify.

Sundquist was fired, but reinstated by an administrative law judge. Authorities then apparently forgot that he should not be allowed to testify.

Neither Sundquist or his attorney returned phone calls for comment.

The notices would ordinarily doom an officer to a desk job or some similar post where the officer doesn’t make arrests or get involved in situations where he might eventually be required to testify in court. An entire case could fall apart if a tainted officer’s testimony was critical to gaining a conviction.

But after being reinstated, Sundquist went on to become leader of a deployment squad in northeast Dallas that tackles special assignments and deals with crime hot spots. His squad largely focused on drug arrests.

Neither police officials or the district attorney’s office has a clear answer as to why Sundquist was allowed to testify in the 15 years since prosecutors issued the first letter saying he shouldn’t. They say the original notice fell through the cracks, probably because the system largely depended on word of mouth to keep barred officers from testifying.

On Wednesday, police commanders quickly moved to relieve Sundquist of his duties as supervisor of the deployment squad.

“We received the letter today, and the letter will require us to put him in a job where he is not subject to have to testify,” Kunkle said.

Defense attorney Bill Wirskye, who represents several clients in cases involving Sundquist, urged prosecutors to take their efforts a step further and dismiss all pending cases involving officers Sundquist supervised.

“A bad police officer like this ought never to be allowed to outrun his past,” said Wirskye. “This letter and Sundquist’s past is just the tip of the iceberg with the problems they have with him and the unit he supervises.”

Officers in that unit were already the subject of a Dallas Morning News story in February that reported that the district attorney’s office was reviewing dozens of cases filed by Sundquist and his squad after prosecutors concluded that one of his subordinates lied about whether a man was illegally carrying a gun and drugs. The man spent 10 months in jail on false charges.

Sundquist has taken the stand in cases as recently as this year, but it isn’t known yet whether any of his testimony was false or misleading.

Getting a grip on how many convictions might have been critically based on Sundquist’s testimony in the last 15 years is a daunting task: Electronic records that can be searched to determine who testified did not exist in Dallas County until 2005. The district attorney’s office wants anyone who participated in a case in which Sundquist testified before then to contact them.

1994 letter

In the Dec. 21, 1994, letter in which prosecutors were told not to put Sundquist on the stand, then-Assistant District Attorney Michael Gillett wrote that he had been found to have made “intentional misrepresentations,” so prosecutors could no longer “vouch for the credibility or sponsor the testimony” of Sundquist.

In a March hearing on a Cedar Hill drug case, Sundquist testified that he had never received any written or verbal instructions indicating he was not cleared to testify. He said he only told prosecutors about his past history when asked if he had anything to disclose that would hinder his credibility as a witness.

He testified that within the last year or so that had only happened twice, and he had been “approved by upstairs” to testify.But according to the trial transcript of one of those cases, prosecutor Robert McClure told a judge and defense attorney in open court that Sundquist had been fired in the past.

But according to the trial transcript of one of those cases, prosecutor Robert McClure told a judge and defense attorney in open court that Sundquist had been fired in the past.  “He’s been testifying for years,” McClure said in court. He decided not to call Sundquist as a witness in that case.


In the mid-1990s, Sundquist and other patrol officers were known among prosecutors as the “Bushmen,” a reference to the group’s fondness for hiding in bushes when conducting surveillance on suspected drug houses in South Dallas.

Colleen Murphy, a prosecutor, testified in Sundquist’s 1995 appeal of his firing that some prosecutors didn’t want to work with the “Bushmen” because their cases “were just totally unbelievable.”

“They’d see amazing things in the middle of the night with no lights, from far distances,” she testified.

Internal police investigators found that Sundquist had conducted an illegal search. They also concluded that Sundquist lied to them, finding among other things that he couldn’t have seen what he claimed to have seen when he said that a man was standing in a doorway with a bag of cocaine.

“I found numerous flaws in their testimony and very shoddy arrest reports,” Sgt. Jose Losoya told internal investigators. “These omissions or flaws could prove disastrous in a court case. As it was, it gave the impression that the officers were falsifying their reports to get drug dealers at all costs.”

After he was fired, prosecutors issued the first letter barring him from further court testimony. An administrative law judge subsequently reinstated Sundquist and reduced the punishment to a 40-day suspension.

That judge, Barnett Goodstein, overturned the internal affairs finding that Sundquist had conducted an illegal search but upheld the finding that he had brought discredit to the department, given a false statement to investigators and that he provided false information for an arrest report.

Sundquist then worked in the communications division for about three years, receiving high marks. He eventually returned to patrol duties and was promoted to sergeant in 2002.

Senior police officials say that over time, the squad Sundquist supervised morphed into a de facto narcotics unit, frequently tasked with working drug activity complaints. Commanders instructed them to no longer work such cases earlier this year.

AT A GLANCE: BRADY VIOLATIONS •What it is: A 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Maryland vs. Brady requires that prosecutors disclose to the defense when a police officer has knowingly lied in an official capacity. To fail to do so is a constitutional “Brady” violation that can lead to the dismissal of a case.

•Avoiding Brady violations in Dallas: Officials have largely depended on word-of-mouth to keep officers with questionable records from testifying. Individual prosecutors or the officer in question have been expected to let the defense know of potential problems.

•Fixing the problem: The Dallas County district attorney’s office and Dallas police say they’re going to develop a systemic mechanism to track officers with credibility problems. In Los Angeles County, for example, the district attorney has created a computer-based Brady Alert system.

•Accident or intention: Bennett Gershman, a Pace University law professor who studies prosecutorial misconduct, says it won’t matter to the courts whether prosecutors intentionally or accidentally put a tainted officer on the stand. “If you didn’t reveal it because you were totally ignorant of the existence of this information, Brady is still violated,” Gershman said. Convictions in such cases have a greater likelihood to be overturned on appeal.

Obama opens the door


Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint have been barnstorming the country ever since they released their diatribe against the Hip Hop generation, “Come on, People!”  They were on a panel at Howard University a week or two after the massive march on Jena.  Howard students were polite and defenential toward Cosby and Poussaint, but they were much more enthusiastic a few hours later when I joined several Jena 6 parents on stage.

This all started back in 2004 when Cosby addressed a Washington gala on the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education.  Instead of honoring the ground-breaking world of Thurgood Marshall and the Legal Defense Fund, Cosby lit into “the lower income folk” in the black community.  Black people needed to stop blaming white folks for all their problems, Cosby said.  The time had come to move beyond the victim mentality. 

Ted Shaw, the newly minted lead counsel for the Legal Defense Fund, followed the Coz to the podium.  Scrapping the polite speech he had prepared for the occasion, Shaw launched into an impromptu call for a modern civil rights movement.  As a case in point, he cited Tulia, Texas, where, he told the audience, 47 innocent black people were arrested on the word of a racist white police officer.  In other words, some poor black people really are victims.

When I ran into Ted Shaw in Jena last year, I reminded him of his run-in with Bill Cosby.  I could see the pain in his eyes.  No one enjoys mixing it up with a cultural icon.

That hasn’t protected Cosby from the wrath of the black intelligentsia, however.  He has been accused of selling out the civil rights movement, for blaming the victim, and for aiding and abetting white conservatives.  Michael Eric Dyson’s “Is Bill Cosby Right?  Or has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind” may have offered the most scorching critique. (more…)

Criminal Justice reform hits the Silver Screen

Paramount pictures is going ahead with its Tulia movie starring Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton. The project appeared to be on the rocks when the Carl Franklin, the original director, walked away. Now, with John (Boyz in the Hood) Singleton signing on as director, “Tulia” is back on track.

The Tulia drug sting of 1999 transformed me from a Baptist minister into a criminal justice reform activist (although I still see myself as a pastor). Friends of Justice emerged as the organized resistance to the prosecution of 46 Tulia residents (39 of them African American) on the uncorroborated testimony of an unsupervized and corrupt undercover officer. You won’t learn about Friends of Justice from watching the Tulia movie, of course; but we were the folks that turned a routine drug prosecution into a national scandal.

I sometimes cringe when I ponder what Hollywood might do with the Tulia story. The silver screen has never let the facts get in the way of a good story, and I’m sure “Tulia” will be no exception. On the other hand, the movie (should it ever reach the theaters) should give Friends of Justice an opportunity to tell our story and share our vision.

Several people have asked me why the media generally tells the Jena 6 story without reference to grassroots organizing. You rarely hear about the work of the LaSalle Parish NAACP (founded, against all odds, in response to DA Reed Walters’ bizarre behavior). You don’t learn how Friends of Justice framed the story for the media and brought the ACLU and other organizations into the fight. You don’t read about the tireless efforts of Tory Pegram of the La. ACLU, or the work of King Downing of the national ACLU office.

Grassroots organizing is deleted from the story for two reasons: time constraints, and the law of dramatic parsimony. Every playwrite knows the importance of keeping the dramatis personnae to a minimum; too many characters and the narrative becomes murky and confusing . Which is why Friends of Justice has never figured prominently in the media rendition of the cases we have been involved in, even when our involvement has been critical. The Tulia movie will be no exception.

Unfortunately, the casual viewer concludes that the system effectively identifies and deals with legal outrages like Tulia and Jena. It doesn’t. The crucial role of grassroots organizing, media relations, and coalition building is not generally appreciated. As a result, the average citizen has no idea how many Jenas and Tulias go down with hardly a flicker of protest because no one outside the system is paying attention.

My moaning notwithstanding, the stars of Hollywood are aligning in a most fortuitous fashion. Director Carl Lewis, the original director of the Tulia movie, may be taking on a movie loosely based on the excellent 1999 Frontline feature, “Snitch” (also the title of the projected movie). Eight years on, “Snitch” remains the only serious media treatment of a serious problem.

In March of 2006, Ann Colomb and three of her sons were convicted of running a crack operation out of their FHA home. The case was built entirely on the uncorroborated testimony of federal prison inmates. Thanks to the intervention of Friends of Justice, and the miraculous appearance of two whistle-blowing federal inmates, the charges were dropped after Ann and her sons had spent three months in prison.

In making it as easy as possible to bust genuine drug dealers, we have made it just as easy to convict innocent people like Ann Colomb and her sons. Snitches are rewarded for telling the story the government’s way, and punished for inconvenient testimony. The snitching issue is currently the subject of congressional hearings–a very promising sign. Hopefully, the “Snitch” movie will bring attention to yet another serious problem with the criminal justice system.

The criminal justice system is so broken that nothing short of a complete paradigm shift will save us. Thanks to little grassroots organizations like Friends of Justice, stories like Tulia, the Colomb case and Jena keep piling up. One of these days people are going to pay attention.

If you appreciate the work of Friends of Justice in Jena, please consider making a donation to fund our grassroots organizing!  You can donate online here, or send a check to the address below.

Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.

Alan Bean

Friends of Justice
3415 Ainsworth Court
Arlington, TX 76016
806-729-7889 or 817-457-0025