Their release was greeted with jubilance by the more than 300 people inside the Swisher County Courthouse and on the street outside. Relatives, friends, and other supporters of the four-year-long campaign to win the release of 38 people arrested in this western Texas town of 5,000 people hugged and cheered the 11 men and one woman as they were released.
Forty-six people were arrested on July 23, 1999, in pre-dawn raids on their homes. They were accused by undercover cop Ron Coleman of selling him cocaine over an 18-month period. Coleman had been employed by the state, conducting a sting for the federally funded Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force. No evidence was produced during any of the trials to corroborate Colemans testimony.
A few of the accused were able to prove they were elsewhere at the time of the alleged drug sales. Tonya White, for example, who faced a 99-year prison sentence for supposedly selling Coleman cocaine, proved she was hundreds of miles away in Oklahoma City at the same time of the supposed offense.
What Coleman lacked in evidence he made up for in support from his fellow cops, the judge and jury, area businessmen, and the big-business media. One week after the raids, the Tulia Sentinel celebrated the arrests. We do not like these scumbags doing business in our town, the paper said. They are a cancer in our community, its time to give them a major dose of chemotherapy behind bars. The following week the local papers headline featuring the arrests read, Tulias Streets Cleared of Garbage.
On Dec. 15, 1999, Joe Welton Moore, a 60-year-old hog farmer, was the first to be convicted. He was sentenced to 90 years in prison. Other steep sentences followed. The last trial ended Sept. 28, 2000, as Kareem Abdul Jabbar White was sentenced to 60 years in prison. Facing the prospect of stiff prison sentences, 27 defendants accepted plea agreements.
One young man, Freddie Brookins Jr., the son of a Tulia meat packer, said no to a plea bargain offer that would have cut his sentence to five years. He went to trial, was convicted, and sentenced to 20 years. On the basis of Colemans testimony, 38 people, mostly Black, all from working-class and farm families, were convicted or copped pleas. A total of 800 years in prison and 100 years on probation were handed down. Coleman was awarded Texas Lawman of the Year for 1999.
Tulia cases not unusual
While Coleman is now being called a rogue cop, and state officials are clamoring to distance themselves from the arrests, the Tulia cases are far from unusual. It is not rare in Texas or other states for Blacks and other workers to be convicted of drug charges and given stiff sentences on the basis of cop testimony with no other facts presented, or with planted evidence.
A study by the Texas Justice Policy Council in 1993 reported that the conviction rate for Blacks is 3,064 per 100,000 adults as compared to 493 per 100,000 for whites. In Houstons Harris County, with a Black population of slightly less than 20 percent, 60 percent of imprisoned felons were Black. Sixty-four percent of Blacks convicted of cocaine possession were holding less than half a gram, the study revealed.
In 1997, nearly 10 percent of Black men in the United States between the ages of 25 and 29 were in prison. Though Blacks comprise only 12 percent of the countrys population, as of 1999 they made up 49 percent of the prison population.
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that for the year 2000 Texas has more people in jail than any other state. The report states that nearly one out of three young Black men in the state is either in prison, on probation, or under some type of control by the criminal justice system. There are twice as many Blacks in Texas prisons as enrolled in college.
But the large number of convictions in the small town of Tulia, the fact that so many of the towns African-American working people were swept up in the sting, and the well-known shady record of the star witness, fueled the campaign that relatives, friends, and fellow workers launched against the convictions.
In September 2000 the first civil suit was filed in federal court. On October 13 of that year a complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Justice seeking a civil rights investigation. In September 2001 the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund joined the Tulia Legal Defense Project and the Friends for Justice in taking up the case, enlisting lawyers pro bono to aid the defendants in their appeals and joining the campaign to overturn the convictions and pleas.
An international campaign gained steam. Media in Australia, the United Kingdom, France and other countries covered the Tulia case. Questions about the racist and anti-working-class nature of the whole prison system in the United States began to surround it.
In a hearing this March, Coleman acknowledged that there was no evidence beyond his testimony to support the convictions. He further stated that he had used a racial epithetas the court politely called Colemans slurto refer to Blacks in conversations with his fellow white cops.
Retired judge Ron Chapman was brought in to conduct hearings since the judge of many of the cases was forced to remove himself for publicly supporting the prosecutors after the trials. In an April hearing, Chapman cut short the massive body of evidence being presented about the undercover cop of the year, stating that Coleman is simply not a credible witness under oath. Coleman has since been indicted for perjury.
Chapman recommended that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturn all the convictions.
Two still languish in prison
The court, however, has made no move to release those remaining in prison or overturn their convictions. In the face of the broadening public campaign, the state legislature passed a bill in May permitting the judge to release the last 14 defendants remaining in jail on bond while the Court of Criminal Appeals deliberates. Only 12 of the 14 were released, however, on June 16. The state continues to hold two of the framed-up Tulia residents, Daliel Olivaez and Cash Love, on legal technicalities.
The 12 who were released from jail still have their convictions hanging over them, as do all the 38. They are not eligible for welfare or other state benefits. They have lost jobs and farms, and have taken out loans to cover court costs.
Moore answered questions from the press after his release. Well, I had kind of a hard time for a while there in prison, he said, because I have sugar diabetes. He began to lose his sight. But then I got my medication, so Im all right now. Except, he added, I lost all my hogs because of this trouble. I lost everything, really.
NAACP Legal Defense Fund assistant counsel Vanita Gupta said, We can only hope that todays actions will lead to a reversal of the Tulia convictions and justice for those who have wrongfully suffered for too long.
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