Railroaded in Texas

New York Times Op-Ed

The malicious intent of the law enforcement authorities in Tulia, Tex., was almost immediately evident as police officers fanned out early on the morning of July 23, 1999. They weren't just going to arrest dozens of the town's black residents for alleged drug trafficking, they were going to publicly humiliate them.

Some suspects rousted from their beds were refused permission to dress before being paraded in front of television crews, which had been alerted in advance. At least one man was clad only in his underpants.

Kizzie White, a young woman who was arrested that morning, said in a videotaped prison interview that the officers had come into her house with their guns drawn and that some wore masks. "They wouldn't let me put on my clothes," she said. "I had on boxers and a T-shirt with no underclothes on. With no shoes on. Basically, they took me out half-naked."

Ms. White was among those convicted of drug trafficking in the subsequent assembly-line trials in which guilty verdicts were a foregone conclusion. She is serving a sentence of 25 years in state prison.

Ms. White was fingered, as was everyone else, by Tom Coleman, a narcotics agent with an atrocious employment history and a penchant for making criminal allegations against innocent people. (He claimed, among other things, that Kizzie White's sister Tonya had sold him drugs in Tulia when it turned out that Tonya had not even been living in Texas.)

If Mr. Coleman had any professional or ethical standards, he managed to keep them well hidden. His methods of identifying people who allegedly sold him drugs were notoriously unreliable and sometimes bizarre. But in Tulia they resulted in convictions nevertheless.

Consider, for example, the case of Freddie Brookins Jr., who was sent to prison for allegedly selling cocaine to Mr. Coleman. When asked how he had identified Mr. Brookins, Mr. Coleman said, according to a habeas corpus petition now pending before the Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin:

"I believe I talked to the sheriff on this occasion. I gave him the description of the subject. And I believe the sheriff asked city police officers or somebody, and told me — says, 'Well, we got a Freddie Brookins.' And I said, 'Okay. I need a picture of him.' And then I called Linda [Deputy Sheriff Linda Swanson] and got a picture of him. When she showed it to me, I came back, I think — I don't remember — when I came back on Wednesday or so, she showed me the picture. 'That's him.' So, there you go."

There you go. People were sent to prison for decades on these kinds of flimsy and unsubstantiated identifications and recollections.

According to an appeal filed on Mr. Brookins's behalf by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Deputy Sheriff Swanson testified at Mr. Brookins's trial but "provided no photograph and could not answer a single question about when she was asked to make a copy of the alleged photograph which Coleman allegedly used to identify Mr. Brookins."

That didn't matter to the jury. Freddie Brookins was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Ms. Swanson answers the phone for the Swisher County sheriff, Larry Stewart. When I called and asked to speak to the sheriff, she began asking me questions, including what my "religious preference" was.

I called another time to ask Ms. Swanson specifically about her role in the identification of Mr. Brookins. "I'm not going to answer any questions," she said.

When I asked why, she said the sheriff had told her not to.

A few days ago I visited Mr. Brookins's father, Freddie Brookins Sr., at his home in Tulia. He's a slender, athletic-looking man of 48, who is filled with grief over his son's fate.

He told me his son had been offered a plea bargain that would have required him to serve five years. "He had already told me he was innocent," said Mr. Brookins, "but I asked him again. I said to him, 'Did you do it?' He said, 'No, I didn't.' "

Mr. Brookins said he couldn't bear to advise his son to take a plea to something he hadn't done. So Freddie Jr., 25 years old, went to trial.

The entire Brookins family knew what the outcome would be. When it came time for sentencing, Mr. Brookins told each relative who was in the courtroom not to cry.

"I said, 'Don't give them the benefit of seeing your tears. Don't give them the satisfaction of knowing how much they've hurt you.' "