My word. That drug bust in Tulia, Texas, is back in the news again.
Officials: Ex-officer's testimony racist, untrustworthy (CNN, March 18, 2003): A former undercover officer whose testimony helped convict four black men arrested in a drug sting was untrustworthy and racist, law enforcement officials testified. Monday's testimony came during hearings in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which is examining whether the four defendants were convicted only on the word of former Officer Tom Coleman. The court also wants to know if the state failed to turn over information from Coleman's background that might have impeached his testimony.
A prosecutor who once represented Coleman's ex-wife in divorce and child custody hearings -- and whose district covered the sheriff's office where Coleman worked -- testified he didn't trust Coleman. "My client was concerned for her safety, and I was concerned for my safety," White said. "I was concerned enough that I wore a bulletproof vest to the final hearing."
An investigator with the Fort Stockton Police Department who worked with Coleman in the late 1980s testified Coleman acted inappropriately and disobeyed orders. In one incident, the investigator, Sam Esparza, testified Coleman laughed and said, "'You just don't sound like a Mexican. You don't act like one. You don't even look like one.' After that, I didn't want him with me any more."
(NY Times, March 19, 2003, registration required)
Texas Drug Sting Leader Defends Methods and Men: The leader of the narcotics task force responsible for an undercover operation in which more than a 10th of this town's black population was arrested defended the task force in court today against accusations of racial bias and fabricated evidence. The official, Lt. Michael Amos of the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force, had praise for the work of the lone undercover officer, Thomas Coleman, whose credibility and tactics in the July 23, 1999, sting operation have come under attack, though he said he would have difficulty in hiring him today. [...] Lieutenant Amos, who is also a police officer in Amarillo, testified that Mr. Coleman used a charged racial epithet in front of him. He said he chastised Mr. Coleman. "I told him that there's a time and a place for that sort of language," he said. "The office is not such a place." Asked to name an appropriate time or place, he said that some undercover work could be compromised "by trying to be politically correct."
Agent's ex-boss faces questions about employee (Amarillo Globe News, March 19, 2003): Day two of testimony in the evidentiary hearings on the controversial 1999 Tulia drug sting featured undercover agent Tom Coleman's former boss, who was grilled for a full day as attorneys tried to determine what he knew about his former employee and when he knew it. Defense attorneys elicited testimony from Lt. Mike Amos that Coleman said he bought drugs on days when his time sheets indicated he was not working, used a racial epithet on the job and had a questionable past that was alluded to in a pre-employment background check.
The more the officials try to defend this thing, the more it stinks. The truly respectable thing to do would be to expunge all convictions resulting from this, and to arrest and charge Coleman with perjury and fabrication of evidence. However, given that they don't seem inclined to do so, it's likely that this case may go up and down the judiciary chain a few times on various claims as prosecutors resist losing the convictions. (Though, it would not seem, losing the confidence of tout l'haut Tulia -- see below.)
Apparently, the various Texas Regional Narcotics Task Forces are prone to various types of abuse and corruption:
An Even Keel? (Texas Observer, March 13, 2003): ..... This session, the House leadership appears poised to embrace lowering the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders to save money. If it occurs, Keel, whom Craddick named chairman of the Criminal Jurisprudence committee, will likely deserve some of the credit. One of Keel’s other priorities is to abolish the regional narcotics task forces. As assistant DA and sheriff, he saw up close what a disaster the task forces are. Shortly after being elected sheriff, he withdrew Travis County from the task forces. (At press time Keel’s task force bill, HB 801, has bipartisan support, although no senate sponsor.) While some of the money for the task forces comes from asset forfeitures (about $7 million in 2002), most of it comes from state and local contributions ($10 million) and federal Byrne grants (about $27.5 million). The ACLU estimates that if the savings in the cost of incarceration for low-level drug offenders is added, abolishing the task forces could save the state $199 million this biennium. [...] Keel’s early decision to remove Austin from the task forces appears prescient. His replacement as sheriff foolishly took the county back into the operations. In June 2001, the Capitol Area task force killed a 19-year-old innocent in a drug raid targeting someone else and a deputy died in a badly planned raid. Austin’s scandals were minor compared to others: the well known Tulia case; a case in San Antonio, where an officer was convicted of stealing drugs from a task force evidence locker; in Wimberley, where a suspect accused of twice selling half an ounce of pot was killed by a task force in a raid; and in Hearne, where a crooked confidential informant helped set up 28 people. In Hearne, while most were freed when the informant’s lies were exposed in court, four defendants remain in jail. Those are just some of the more than 17 recent drug task force scandals in Texas. In reaction to the mess, Gov. Perry put the task forces under the Department of Public Safety (DPS), but the problems continue.
New legislation could affect prosecution of drug cases (Daily Texan Online, March 19, 2003): ..... Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, has introduced Senate Bill 515, requiring undercover peace officers involved in drug cases to corroborate their testimony with other evidence. Legislation enacted in 2001 excluded the peace officer provision now included, outlawing only unconfirmed testimony from undercover criminal investigators. "This bill is not only for the protection of an innocent person, but it is also for the protection of police officers," Hinojosa said. The bill would provide a protection and safeguards to those officers out undercover by themselves. The evidence did not necessarily have to be another officer or another person, he said, but the testimony could be anything from a wiretap to a fingerprint. [...] The corroboration bill was left pending in committee, but the courts are in the middle of confronting the questionable incarcerations in Tulia. Evidentiary hearings that may overturn the cases against four convicted defendants are expected to continue throughout the week.
The Texas Observer, in fact, has quite a lot of commentary on Tulia, here and there. Not just on that case. Tulia seems to be a very bad place for what they are pleased to call "justice".
Can You Hear Me Now? (Texas Observer feature, November 8, 2002): ..... When the Observer first reported on Tulia in June of 2000, very little had been written about the previous summer’s now-infamous drug busts. Our investigative report was a sort of perfect storm for drug policy reform advocates, neatly illustrating much that has gone wrong with the nation’s domestic drug war. The sheriff of Tulia, a ranching and farming town of 5,000 roughly halfway between Lubbock and Amarillo, had used grant money from the governor’s office to hire Tom Coleman, a gypsy cop with no experience in undercover work, and, as it was later revealed, a very checkered past. Coleman worked deep cover in Tulia for eighteen months with virtually no supervision, during which time he reported making more than one hundred drug buys, mostly small amounts of powdered cocaine, from no fewer than forty-six different dealers. Although the deliveries were small, an usually high percentage of them were alleged to have taken place near a school or a park, making them first degree felonies. [...] The governor’s office has reorganized the grant program that funded the operation, putting task forces like the one that employed Coleman under the supervision of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Coleman himself–named a Lawman of the Year by John Cornyn following the busts–has since been fired from two separate narcotics postings around the state and has gone to ground in Waxahachie, where his lawyer deflects the media inquiries that still regularly come, from Court TV to the London Independent.
A Trial in Tulia: One Man's Four-Year Ordeal with Swisher County Justice (Texas Observer, October 25, 2002): ..... Less well known is another Tulia drama that unfolded just as the drug sting cases were being prosecuted: the case of David Earl Johnson. Johnson was paroled earlier this month after serving almost four and one half years for manslaughter. If anything, Johnson’s case is even more confounding than the cocaine sting that caught the national media’s attention. In June of 1998, Johnson was arrested and charged in the 1989 death of Anthony Culifer, the infant son of Johnson’s former girlfriend. Because Johnson could not make his $500,000 bail, he was forced to wait in jail for nearly two years, while District Attorney Terry McEachern plowed through the Tulia drug cases. How McEachern obtained an indictment, let alone a conviction, for a death that occurred nine years previously–and was pronounced death by pneumonia at the time–reads like a bad tabloid tale. The principal witness for the prosecution, the child’s mother, claimed to have remembered in a dream years after her son’s death that she had seen Johnson kill her baby. Anthony’s older sister also testified against Johnson, claiming to have witnessed the crime as well. She was two years old at the time. The authorities had Anthony’s body exhumed, although they knew the baby had not been embalmed. Not surprisingly, they found no tissue to examine–but they did manage to persuade a Florida pathologist to come to Tulia and testify that Anthony might have been smothered. When the trial was over, barely a week after it had begun, the jury gave Johnson the maximum sentence for involuntary manslaughter: 10 years in prison.
I can't believe that any competent prosecutor would have touched that case. I can't believe that the judge involved didn't dismiss this case with prejudice. I can't believe that any jury with a brain in their head would have found the man guilty of anything.
For previous commentary on the original Tulia case: (1) Tulia drug sting investigated by Texas -- the Times link no longer works, but the Washington Post link does; (2) the Color of Justice, Texas StylePosted by iain at March 19, 2003 05:48 PM