Tulia's Shattered Lives

New York Times Op-Ed

TULIA, Tex. -- "There," said Mattie White, squinting against the hot sun. "That's where the kingpin lived."

Her voice was thick with disgust and bitter irony as she uttered the word "kingpin." She pointed to the absolute ruin of a house that had belonged to Joe Moore, a pig farmer in his late 50's who was said by law enforcement authorities to be the lead trafficker of the dozens of alleged cocaine dealers rounded up in an infamous series of raids on July 23, 1999.

The house — little more than a shack, really — seemed about to collapse from the weight of its crumbling concrete and rotting wood. Windows were broken, screens were shredded, and the corrugated tin roof was a study in rust and corrosion.

Mr. Moore was no major gangster. But he was swept up in the raids that followed an 18-month "deep undercover" investigation by a narcotics agent named Tom Coleman. There was no evidence that anyone arrested was a substantial dealer of cocaine, as alleged. No drugs, money or weapons were found in the raids. And the evidence against the suspects consisted almost solely of Mr. Coleman's uncorroborated, unsubstantiated word.

But in Tulia, a hot, dusty and racist town on the Texas panhandle, that was enough. Mr. Coleman, who is white, targeted poor black residents and a handful of whites who had relationships with them. Some of the targets had had previous run-ins with the law, and one of those was Joe Moore. Although he insisted he had sold no drugs, he was convicted on the word of Mr. Coleman, and the court was merciless. He was sentenced to 90 years in state prison.

"Joe Moore didn't sell no drugs," said Mrs. White. "All he did was sell his hogs. Me and him was real good friends. He was a nice person, and he would help anyone."

Mr. Coleman's investigative shenanigans (he worked alone, kept no detailed records and fingered obviously innocent people) have devastated the tiny black community here. And they have taken an extreme toll on Mrs. White, a serious, hard-working and very religious black woman of 51. Her 33-year-old daughter Tonya was accused of selling drugs to Mr. Coleman. Not only was Tonya not in Tulia when she was supposed to have been selling the drugs, she didn't even live in Texas.

The charges against Tonya White had to be dropped when lawyers produced bank records that proved she was in Oklahoma City at the time that Mr. Coleman said the drug transaction had occurred.

Mrs. White's son Donald, 32, was not as fortunate. He, too, was accused of selling to Mr. Coleman. And Donald was known to have struggled with a drug habit in the past. He was convicted and sentenced to 14 years in prison. Because of good behavior, and perhaps because there was mitigating evidence offered at trial, Donald was paroled after serving two years.

Mrs. White's daughter Kizzie, 25, was also accused of selling drugs to Tom Coleman. She was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Mrs. White's son Kareem, 26, was also accused of selling drugs to Tom Coleman. He was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison.

This goes on and on. Kizzie White has two children, an 8-year-old girl and a 5-year-old boy. The father of the boy is a white man named Cash Love. He, too, was accused of selling drugs to Tom Coleman. Mr. Love was awarded a special measure of Tulia's venom. He was convicted and sentenced to more than 300 years in prison.

It may be that some people sold some small amounts of drugs to Mr. Coleman, a troubled man who has had his own difficulties with the law. But there is no evidence that anyone caught in his net was a major dealer. And there is plenty of evidence that innocent people were snared and sent off to prison.

Mrs. White is now working two jobs as she tries to care for Kizzie's children, maintain her own home and offer hope and support for Kizzie and Kareem, who are in prisons far from Tulia.

"It's very difficult," she said. "These children miss their mama, and I've fallen behind on my mortgage and taxes. It's terrible what that man has done with his lies. He has ruined so many lives. I just pray and ask God to help me, because I know he knows the difference between right and wrong."