Kafka in Tulia

New York Times Op-Ed

Tulia is a hot, dusty town of 5,000 on the Texas Panhandle, about 50 miles south of Amarillo.

For some, it's a frightening place, slow and bigoted and bizarre. Kafka could have had a field day with Tulia.

On the morning of July 23, 1999, law enforcement officers fanned out and arrested more than 10 percent of Tulia's tiny African-American population. Also arrested were a handful of whites who had relationships with blacks.

The humiliating roundup was intensely covered by the local media, which had been tipped off in advance. Men and women, bewildered and unkempt, were paraded before TV cameras and featured prominently on the evening news.

They were drug traffickers, one and all, said the sheriff, a not particularly bright Tulia bulb named Larry Stewart.

Among the 46 so-called traffickers were a pig farmer, a forklift operator and a number of ordinary young women with children.

If these were major cocaine dealers, as alleged, they were among the oddest in the U.S. None of them had any money to speak of. And when they were arrested, they didn't have any cocaine. No drugs, money or weapons were recovered during the surprise roundup.

Most of Tulia's white residents applauded the arrests, and the local newspapers were all but giddy with their editorial approval. The first convictions came quickly, and the sentences left the town's black residents aghast. One of the few white defendants, a man who happened to have a mixed-race child, was sentenced to more than 300 years in prison.

The hog farmer, a black man in his late 50's named Joe Moore, was sentenced to 90 years. Kareem White, a 24-year-old black man, was sentenced to 60 years. And so on.
When the defendants awaiting trial saw this extreme sentencing trend, they began scrambling to plead guilty in exchange for lighter sentences. These ranged from 18 years in prison to, in some case, just probation.

It is not an overstatement to describe the arrests in Tulia as an atrocity. The entire operation was the work of a single police officer who claimed to have conducted an 18-month undercover operation. The arrests were made solely on the word of this officer, Tom Coleman, a white man with a wretched work history, who routinely referred to black people as "niggers" and who frequently found himself in trouble with the law.

Mr. Coleman's alleged undercover operation was ridiculous. There were no other police officers to corroborate his activities. He did not wear a wire or conduct any video surveillance. And he did not keep detailed records of his alleged drug buys. He said he sometimes wrote such important information as the names of suspects and the dates of transactions on his leg.

In trial after trial, prosecutors put Mr. Coleman on the witness stand and his uncorroborated, unsubstantiated testimony was enough to send people to prison for decades.
In some instances, lawyers have been able to show that there was no basis in fact — none at all — for Mr. Coleman's allegations, that they came from some realm other than reality.

He said, for example, that he had purchased drugs from a woman named Tonya White, and she was duly charged. But last April the charges had to be dropped when Ms. White's lawyers proved that she had cashed a check in Oklahoma City at the time that she was supposed to have been selling drugs to Mr. Coleman in Tulia.

Another defendant, Billy Don Wafer, was able to prove — through employee time sheets and his boss's testimony — that he was working at the time he was alleged by Mr. Coleman to have been selling cocaine. And the local district attorney, Terry McEachern, had to dismiss the case against a man named Yul Bryant after it was learned that Mr. Coleman had described him as a tall black man with bushy hair. Mr. Bryant was 5-foot-6 and bald.

In a just world, this case would be no more than a spoof on "Saturday Night Live." Instead it's a tragedy with no remedy in sight.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, the Tulia Legal Defense Project and a number of private law firms are trying to mount an effort to free the men and women imprisoned in this fiasco.

The idea that people could be rounded up and sent away for what are effectively lifetime terms solely on the word of a police officer like Tom Coleman is insane.