Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Tulia, Texas Scandal

Justice At Last

In April 2003, Coleman was indicted on three counts of aggravated perjury by a Swisher County grand jury for lying under oath. At the time of his indictment, a majority of the defendants cases had been dismissed or on probation. However, 14 of "Tulia's 46" still remained in jail even though Chapman recommended that the all the cases be thrown out. Yet, those who were imprisoned would not languish behind bars for much longer.

Court with 13 defendants in jury box
Court with 13 defendants in jury box

That June, a bill signed by Texas Governor Rick Perry passed through legislature, which allowed 11 men and a woman to be freed from prison on their own recognizance, pending appeals. Two other defendants remained incarcerated because one faced drug charges in another county and the other's bail was pending on a direct appeal. Phil Magers' 2003 United Press International article, quoted Blanca Labord, the general counsel for Senator John Whitmire saying that the senator, "felt it was unconscionable that they [the defendants] remain in prison when everybody including the prosecutor, the judge and the defense lawyers-had agreed that it was a travesty of justice for them to remain incarcerated when the only witness against them had been completely discredited and indicted for perjury." The senator was one of several lawmakers that passed another bill through legislation in 2001, known as the "Tulia Law" that prohibited convicting a felon based on the sole evidence of an undercover agent. It was clear that the defendants were finally on their way to receiving the justice they had long awaited.

In August, Governor Perry granted full pardons to 35 of the defendants convicted in the Tulia drug sting. According to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's article "Bad Times in Tulia, TX," Vanita Gupta, a staff attorney for the organization, was quoted as saying that the pardons were "a huge victory in these cases" commending the governor for "doing the right thing." However, the battle was not yet over.

Terry McEachern
Terry McEachern
That same month, two of the former defendants, Tonya White and Zuri Bossett filed a 40-page federal lawsuit with the U.S. District Court in Amarillo seeking monetary damages for civil rights violations. The lawsuit was directed at the officials responsible for the sting operation, including Coleman, Swisher County, Sheriff Larry Stewart, prosecutor Terry McEachern and several other task force officials. As a result of the lawsuit, Swisher County authorities agreed to pay a settlement of $250,000 to the defendants in exchange for immunity from further lawsuits. McKenna quoted Blackburn who said that the money was merely, "a down payment" to be "paid in exchange only for releasing Swisher County and its employees from further liability." It was by no means the final settlement to be paid to the defendants.

In March 2004, the City of Amarillo decided to once and for all put an end to the Tulia affair. According to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the city agreed to:

Pay $5 million in damages to the 45 former Tulia defendants (one person died shortly after conviction and did not collect damages);

Disband the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force that it established to oversee the sting operation; and

Require early retirement for two Amarillo Police Department officers who were responsible for supervising the sting's sole undercover agent, Tom Coleman.

In Adam Liptak's 2004 New York Times article, Jeff Blackburn was quoted saying that, "This is undoubtedly that last major chapter in the Tulia story, and this will conclude the efforts of people in Tulia to get some compensation and justice." Liptak stated that the money would be divided amongst all of the defendants, "based on a formula that will take into account whether they served time in prison and how long." Tulia's black community and the attorney's who represented them were pleased with the final outcome. They had finally triumphed after a long battle.

Coleman exits court
Coleman exits court
In the meantime, Tulia residents await Coleman's trial, which was initially scheduled for May 24, 2004. However, a judge has granted a continuance and no new date has yet been set. If he is found guilty of the three counts of perjury, he could receive up to 10 years in prison. Many of those previously convicted hope that justice moves swiftly in Coleman's case. They want to be sure that what happened in Tulia will never occur again.

 

 

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