Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Tulia, Texas Scandal

The Hearing

Tom Coleman
Tom Coleman
On March 17, spectators filled Swisher County Courthouse hoping that they would finally get a chance to see justice prevail. According to Blakslee's article "Free at Last?" the trial court had the specific charge of determining "whether the prosecution had failed to turn over damaging information about Coleman to defense attorneys." The defense team, who had long prepared for the event, selected several key witnesses to testify during the week-long hearing. Among them was, Coleman, Pecos County District Attorney Ori White (no relation to Tonya White or family), former Pecos County Sheriff Bruce Wilson and Sheriff Larry Stewart.

Swisher County Courthouse
Swisher County Courthouse

The first called to testify for the defense was Ori White. White had previously represented Coleman's wife during their divorce in the late 1980s. During his testimony, he suggested that Coleman was a dishonest individual. Adam Liptak quoted White in a March 2003 article stating, "Coleman owned an illegal machine gun and that he so feared for his safety in the divorce case that he wore a bulletproof vest to court."

Following White's testimony, Sheriff Wilson was called to the stand. He also provided valuable information about Coleman's character. He claimed that Coleman threatened two women in the town of Iraan and he had a tape recording of the incident. Wilson also said that Coleman harassed a teenager in the same town by pulling him over several times a day on numerous occasions. Moreover, he suggested that his former deputy was not dependable.

Another key witness that took the stand was Coleman's previous employer, Sheriff Stewart. Stewart testified that when he arrested Coleman for theft and abuse of power, Coleman seemed unaware of the charges against him. However, the defense presented strong evidence that Coleman indeed knew about the charges well before he was arrested. They showed Stewart a waiver signed by Coleman four months prior to the arrest in which he acknowledged the charges against him. The evidence proved to be damaging to the state's case.

Judge Ron Chapman, who presided over the hearing, also heard the testimony of other law enforcement officers who provided even more insight into Coleman's character and reputation. Some of those who testified claimed that Coleman was racist, irresponsible, dishonest and paranoid. Despite contrary evidence presented by the state, the defense was able to successfully establish Coleman's notorious reputation as a rogue cop. It was further facilitated by Coleman's own testimony later that week.

When Coleman took the stand, defense attorney Mitch Zamoff questioned him about the waiver he signed concerning the theft and abuse of power charges against him. Coleman claimed that at the time he signed the waiver it was blank and that he was unaware of the warrant issued for his arrest. According to Blakeslee's article, Coleman said that he signed the waiver "because he thought trouble might be coming and it would save his lawyer from having to find him in Tulia."

Coleman also testified that his lawyer, who was hired at the time the charges were filed, never told him about the arrest warrant. However, the defense had evidence that proved otherwise. They showed Coleman a letter written by his lawyer, which discussed at length the charges against him. Yet, Coleman claimed that he never received it.

Defense attorneys also asked Coleman if he was prejudiced. Coleman vehemently denied that he was racist, although he admitted to using the word "nigger" on many occasions when referring to black people. He also suggested that he casually used the derogatory word when greeting friends and family.

During further questioning by the defense, Coleman continued to dig himself deeper and deeper into a hole. Before Coleman even got a chance to finish his testimony, the Judge Chapman adjourned the hearings. According to the CBS News article "38 Drug Cases Thrown into Question," Chapman later announced that "Tom Coleman is simply not a credible witness under oath."

In a surprise move, Chapman recommended that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals grant new trials to the 4 defendants. The prosecution agreed to the motion and said that they would dismiss the charges if the appeals court approved of the judgment. Even though the defendants had to return to jail until the matter was settled, they had newfound hope that they would one day soon be released.

 

 

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