Will The Legacy Of Tulia Be The Death Of Bucks For Busts Policing?

By Arianna Huffington

America is a level playing field. So, naturally, college admissions
policies should never even take race into account at all. At least that's
what the Bush administration argued in front of the Supreme Court last

But instead of spending an enormous amount of time and effort obsessing
about African American candidates to the University of Michigan receiving
special treatment, maybe the White House should focus on a genuinely
pernicious form of affirmative action: the special treatment blacks get
when it comes to jail admissions. The damning fact is that while blacks
make up 13 percent of drug users, they account for 37 percent of those
arrested on drug charges, 55 percent of those convicted and 74 percent of
all drug offenders sentenced to prison. Doesn't sound too much like Bush's
shining ideal of color-blindness to me.

And if you want some harsh narrative to put flesh and blood to these harsh
numbers, take a look at the latest chapter in the horror story exposed
last week in Texas, where a judge and special prosecutor agreed to throw
out every last conviction stemming from the now notorious Tulia drug

It was a shameful miscarriage of justice: 46 people, 39 of them black --
roughly 15 percent of the small Panhandle town's African Americans -- were
rounded up and arrested in the summer of 1999 solely on the uncorroborated
testimony of Tom Coleman, a white undercover cop with a shady past and a
fondness for racial epithets. Outrageously long prison sentences soon
followed -- even for first time offenders. But despite growing doubts
about Coleman's credibility and howls of protest from civil rights
activists, prosecutors stood by their narc -- and the Tulia defendants
languished behind bars.

All that changed last week when, following an extraordinary hearing in
which Coleman's integrity was shredded -- with former coworkers portraying
him as dishonest, untrustworthy, and a racist, and Coleman himself
labeling his sworn testimony "questionable" -- presiding Judge Ron Chapman
declared: "Tom Coleman is simply not a credible witness under oath," and
moved to vacate the convictions. Which, in prosecution-friendly Texas, is
the equivalent of pointing out that not only does the emperor have no
clothes -- he's got a really lousy body.

The sweeping ruling was more than even the most optimistic of those
working to undo the injustice in Tulia had dared hope for. The hearing was
originally called to address the cases of only four Tulia defendants, but
the evidence against Coleman was so damning that prosecutors agreed to
toss out the convictions and guilty pleas of everyone he'd testified
against. In addition, Swisher County, which encompasses Tulia, agreed to
pay $250,000 to the Tulia defendants.

But it's not time to break out the champagne just yet. This, after all, is
Texas -- and the judge's ruling is not final. It still has to be approved
by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which is not required to accept
the recommendation -- and which has a reputation for bending over
backwards to uphold convictions.

So we need to keep the media spotlight on the case, and demand that the
higher court affirm the judge's ruling. In the meantime, 13 people,
convicted on the testimony of an utterly discredited cop, remain locked
up, serving sentences of up to 90 years.

It's also important that we don't allow the powers-that-be to dismiss the
Tulia fiasco as an aberration -- and dump all the blame at the feet of a
single rogue cop. A system around this cop allowed him to be the catalyst
for the injustice -- and just because he's discredited doesn't mean that
the system that allowed him to flourish has changed.

"Tom Coleman is merely the symptom of a much bigger disease," says Randy
Credico of the William Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, which was
instrumental in bringing Tulia to the public's attention. "It's this
country's out of control drug task forces that are the real cancer."

Coleman was hired for the Tulia sting by the Panhandle Regional Narcotics
Task Force, one of an estimated 1,000 drug task forces operating across
America with very little oversight or accountability. "The Panhandle task
force," says Credico, "was the beneficiary of Coleman's lies. The more
busts he made and the more convictions he helped win, the more federal
grant money the task force received."

In this corrupt, bucks-for-busts world, Coleman was a regular cash cow. So
it's not surprising that his task force handlers didn't look too closely
at his tainted resume, and stuck by him until the bitter end. Testifying
on Coleman's behalf, one of his supervisors, Lt. Michael Amos, claimed
that Coleman had "an exceptional talent at being an undercover officer."
Hmmm -- isn't that just another way of saying that he was a damn good

A quick check of the local papers shows there are many more cops with
"exceptional talent" running amok in task forces all across Texas, leaving
behind a scorched earth of illegal behavior, large scale arrests of
innocent people, and ruined lives.

There have been so many scandals associated with drug task forces deep in
the heart of Texas that it has prompted a bipartisan move in the state
legislature to abolish them. The effort is being led by Republican Rep.
Terry Keel, a former prosecutor, and Jeff Blackburn of the Tulia Legal
Defense Project, the lawyer who spearheaded the Tulia appeals.
When a law and order former prosecutor and a crusading civil rights
defense attorney team up on a hot button issue -- you know it's an idea
whose time has come.

"We won a battle in Tulia," said Blackburn, who donated over $70,000 of
his time to the case. "But the war will be lost if we can't change what
has become a badly broken system. Texas became addicted to these task
forces early in the game; maybe we can take the lead in showing other
states that it's possible to break that addiction." That would be a nice
switch -- seeing the Lone Star State leading the way in something other
than executions.

Drug task forces -- the rabid attack dogs of America's drug war --
routinely target African Americans. Getting rid of them would be the best
kind of affirmative action.