Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Tulia, Texas Scandal

The Campaign

Tulia, a small, declining farming community with a population of a little more than 5,000 residents, was an unlikely place to find such a well-organized and prosperous drug-ring. Many of the black residents lived at the lower end of the socio-economic level, earning an average of $9,000 to $11,000 a year. Even though they earned relatively meager incomes, most had rich family lives and a strong sense of faith and community.

This being the case, it was difficult to imagine that a tenth of Tulia's black population was swept up in drug dealing. What was even more surprising was that they were allegedly dealing cocaine, one of the most expensive drugs on the black market. Donnie Smith asked the questions that were on everyone's mind, "Where's the drugs, where's the big houses, where all the gold teeth?" The fact was that there wasn't sufficient evidence of drug dealing, nor was there adequate evidence to secure the convictions. It was just Coleman's word against the defendants and in most cases his word prevailed.

Consequently, 38 of the "Tulia 46" were imprisoned or serving probation on drug related charges, whereas the eight remaining cases, including Tonya White's, were eventually dismissed. It was clear that the problem was not just with Coleman, but also with the entire judicial system. It was up to a small group of lawyers and several organizations from across the country to right the wrongs that devastated Tulia's black community and threatened the civil rights of an entire nation.

Donna McKenna
Donna McKenna
Jeff Blackburn, who represented Tonya White, formed the Tulia Legal Defense Project (TLDP) whose aim was to organize the release of all the defendants who were sentenced to jail. According to a 2003 Court TV interview with Donna McKenna, Blackburn said that the group was made up of a small group of local pro-bono lawyers who joined forces with the Kuntsler Fund for Racial Justice, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and attorneys from the law firms of Hogan and Hartson and Wilmer, and Cutler and Pickering. The team's first move was to initiate new hearings and attack Coleman's credibility and investigative methods.

Lawyers for the TLDP immediately filed appeals and motions asking for new trials for the defendants. It took several years but finally in 2003 they were granted new hearings, which involved a review of four of the 46 cases including that of Freddie Brookins Jr., Jason Willams, Christopher Jackson and Joe Moore. If they could present a strong argument, they had a shot at getting new trials for the four defendants. Moreover, if things worked the way they hoped, they would also get new trials for the rest of the people indicted in the Tulia drug operation.

Blackburn was pleased with the outcome. Kossey quoted him as saying that they were, "going to get a chance for the first time to talk about how these trials were conducted, what was done wrong, what lead to these convictions [and] why did these juries do what they did." The hearings to review the 4 cases were set for that March.



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