A Good Day



The first time I ever saw a smile flicker across the face of Freddie Brookins Sr. was on Monday.
Mr. Brookins is a compact, athletic-looking man in his late 40's. He could serve as a model for that mythic American figure, the tough, soft-spoken, no-nonsense father who puts in decades of hard work to build a reasonably secure and comfortable life for his family.

Mr. Brookins is a beef processor. Four years ago his son, Freddie Jr., a young man with no history of trouble with the law, was arrested in the now-notorious Tulia drug sweep. After taking out a home equity loan to get his son released on bail, Mr. Brookins asked Freddie Jr. if he had, in fact, sold drugs to an undercover agent named Tom Coleman, as the authorities were alleging.

Freddie Jr. said no. Which created a situation. Tremendously long prison sentences were already being handed down, and everybody understood that there was more of a chance that the people of Tulia would begin to fly than that a jury would acquit any of the blacks caught in the sweep.

But prosecutors were willing to accept a guilty plea from Freddie Jr. in exchange for a five-year sentence.
When I met Mr. Brookins last summer, Freddie Jr. was already in prison doing 20 years. Mr. Brookins told me he couldn't bear to advise his son to take a plea to something he hadn't done. So the young man went to trial in the spring of 2000 and was convicted, as he knew he would be.

I got a chance to talk to Mr. Brookins on Monday afternoon, soon after Freddie Jr. and 11 other Tulia defendants were released on a special personal recognizance bond. The Tulia drug cases have completely fallen apart and all convictions are likely to be overturned.

I spotted Mr. Brookins taking a quiet moment alone outside a building where a welcome home celebration for the newly released defendants was being held.

"How you doing?" I asked.

That's when I saw the smile spread across his face. He took my hand in both of his and gave it a great squeeze.

"He's finally home," he said. His voice was a little husky from cigarette smoke, and still as quiet as ever. "It's a great day. A great day."

I asked if he was bitter about the authorities, or the system, or Tom Coleman, the chronic liar who set the Tulia madness in motion.

"That's a hard question," said Mr. Brookins. "In a way I'm bitter. And in a way I feel sorry for them."

Also released on Monday was Joe Moore, a kindly, overweight 60-year-old pig farmer who "can't read or write too good" and is in such poor health he can barely walk without assistance. He was smiling, too.

"Well, I had kind of a hard time for a while there in prison," he said, "because I have sugar diabetes and I wasn't getting my medication there for a while. I began to lose some of my sight. But then I got my medication, so I'm all right now."

Except for the fact that he is destitute. "I lost all my hogs because of this trouble," he said. "I lost everything, really."
There seemed to be a special measure of cruelty in the treatment of Mr. Moore. He was sentenced to 90 years in prison as an alleged drug kingpin, and at one point was assigned to a maximum security unit populated by hard-core predators. Even the inmates were astonished.

"They said to me, `What are you doing here? You don't need to be in here, old man.' "

Rather than abusing Mr. Moore, the inmates looked out for him. "They were very protective," he said.

There were smiles and hugs everywhere on Monday as defendants were reunited with their children, their parents, other relatives and close friends. But if you paid close attention it was easy to see signs of discomfiture, wariness, anger and even rage behind many of the smiles.

The events over the past four years were not just bizarre, they were profoundly destructive. Some of the defendants seemed bewildered, not fully understanding all that had happened to them, or what might be in store.
None of those I spoke to had solid plans for the future. And no one had any money to speak of. Their liberty had been taken away from them capriciously and, in their view, almost as capriciously returned.

So Monday was a good day. But given everything that had happened, no one was placing heavy bets on Tuesday.