Justice Goes Into Hiding

New York Times Op-Ed

Top law enforcement officials in Texas and at the Justice Department in Washington were aware of the hateful treatment of black people caught in a drug sting gone haywire in the small panhandle town of Tulia, but no one bothered to do anything about it.

The fact that a monstrous, racially motivated miscarriage of justice was occurring, that innocent people had been wrongfully accused and that entire families were being ruined did not prompt anyone to intervene.

"Certainly we're concerned in any case about fair justice," said Tom Kelly, a spokesman for the Texas state attorney general, John Cornyn. But he said Mr. Cornyn had not become involved in the events in Tulia because it was his understanding that the Justice Department had been conducting a criminal investigation.

"Attorney General Cornyn does stand ready to assist federal authorities in any way that we can assist them in their ongoing investigation," said Mr. Kelly.

You can file that comment in the empty gesture folder. There is no ongoing criminal investigation. A couple of years ago, the Justice Department, after receiving complaints from the N.A.A.C.P. and others, did open an investigation of Tom Coleman, an undercover narcotics agent who conducted a clownish one-man sting operation that resulted in the arrests in the summer of 1999 of more than 10 percent of Tulia's black population. Bill Clinton was president at the time and the lead investigator was an F.B.I. agent from Amarillo.

Mr. Coleman should have been an easy target. A white man who was fond of the word "nigger," he focused his "investigation" entirely on black people and a handful of whites who had relationships with them. He fingered people who were obviously innocent, routinely discarded evidence, scrawled important investigative information on his legs and arms, changed some of his testimony from trial to trial, and stumbled frequently into legal trouble himself.

But George W. Bush was the governor of Texas during Mr. Coleman's Tulia shenanigans. And when Mr. Bush became president and appointed John Ashcroft attorney general, the Justice Department investigation was doomed. Lori Sharpe Day, an adviser to Mr. Ashcroft, informed the president of the American Bar Association last month that "an investigation of events in Tulia was conducted by the Criminal Section and recently closed."

[Late Friday afternoon I got a call from a Justice Department spokesman who said that while the criminal investigation has been closed, the Tulia matter is still under "review" by the Civil Rights Division.]

Mr. Cornyn, meanwhile, is running for a U.S. Senate seat in Texas against a black opponent. One of the items you are not likely to find in his campaign material is the photo of him presenting Tom Coleman with a Texas "Lawman of the Year Award" for 1999.

With state and federal officials unwilling to aid the victims of this fiasco, and with several people serving unconscionably long prison sentences, it has fallen to a small group of dedicated lawyers to try to right some of these grievous wrongs.

One of the members of this cadre, a white lawyer from Amarillo named Jeff Blackburn, who has offered his services pro bono, has managed to get the charges against two defendants dismissed. "This is an injustice that has to be corrected," he said.

The legal challenges, supported by a number of private law firms, are being coordinated by the formidable Elaine Jones, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

"It is rare that we've seen an entire community preyed upon in this way," said Ms. Jones. "But we're in it now and we're going to stay with it. I'm not going to rest until all the convictions are overturned. I just hope no one dies in prison. You know, the hog farmer [Joe Moore, who is in his late 50's and serving a sentence of 90 years] is now in poor health."

The local authorities, including the prosecutor, Terry McEachern, are now keeping remarkably low profiles. The right thing to do would be to throw in the towel, to admit that there was not sufficient evidence to justify these cases.

Tom Coleman's investigation was a nightmarish blend of incompetence and malevolence and no one should have to spend even an hour in jail because of it.