Texas Governor Pardons 35 Arrested in Tainted Sting

August 23, 2003


Gov. Rick Perry of Texas yesterday pardoned 35 people, 31 of them black, who were arrested in 1999 in a drug sting based solely on the word of an undercover agent who has since been indicted on perjury charges.
"Questions surrounding testimony from the key witness in these cases," the governor said, referring to the agent, Tom Coleman, "weighed heavily on my final decision."

The arrests in Tulia, a dusty small town of 5,000 people in the Texas Panhandle between Amarillo and Lubbock, attracted national attention because they decimated the small black community there.

Freddie Brookins Jr., 26, served 3 1/2 years of a 20-year sentence. He has been free since June, when Governor Perry, a Republican, signed legislation allowing the 14 people then still in prison to be released on bail while he and the courts considered their cases.

"It really takes a lot off your mind," Mr. Brookins said of the pardon.
But there was bitterness mixed with his relief.

"What hurt the most was that the people in the courtroom and on the jury knew me and knew I hadn't done it," he said.

"All of it had to do with race. It's a stupid way to try to get people out of town."

Jeff Blackburn, a lawyer in Amarillo who represents many of the people pardoned yesterday, said indiscriminate spending in the war on drugs was to blame for the debacle in Tulia. He was especially critical of the Texas Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force, a federally financed consortium of 26 Texas counties based in Amarillo.

"The government agency that caused the Tulia fiasco was the task force," Mr. Blackburn said. "They were the group that hired Coleman. They were that group that allegedly supervised Coleman. We believe it was this group that encouraged him to make the largest number of cases using whatever methods he chose. The more productive he appeared to be, the more funding money they could get."

Task force officials did not respond to messages seeking comment.

At a hearing in Tulia in March, Mr. Coleman, who is white, and other witnesses testified about his troubled law enforcement career, unorthodox methods, pervasive errors, combustible temperament and what apparently was racism.

Mr. Coleman blithely conceded that he routinely used the most charged racial slur.

Mr. Coleman also testified that although most of the drug transactions he swore to were in public places, he did not wear a recording device, arrange for video surveillance, ask anyone to observe the deals or fingerprint the plastic bags containing the drugs.

He worked alone and did not tape record his drug buys. Instead, he said, he would jot down information on his leg. No drugs, weapons or large sums of cash were found during the mass arrest of 46 people, 39 of them black, in 1999.

Among the people arrested in 1999 but not pardoned yesterday were seven whose cases had been dismissed before trial, two who were on probation at the time of their arrests and so not eligible for pardons, one whose conviction is not final and one who has died.

Mr. Coleman pleaded not guilty to perjury charges in April. His phone is disconnected, and his lawyer did not return a call seeking comment.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's highest court for criminal matters, is considering a recommendation from the judge who supervised the March hearing that all of the Tulia convictions be overturned. It is not clear what effect the pardons will have on those proceedings. The pardons will, however, open the way for civil suits by those charged in the cases.

"We're planning on exhausting every single remedy available to our clients," said Vanita Gupta, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represents many of the Tulia defendants.
The first civil suit arising from the Tulia arrests was, apparently coincidentally, filed yesterday in federal court in Amarillo. It was brought by two women against whom charges were brought and then dropped before trial, as Mr. Coleman's evidence started to unravel.

The suit says that the people and agencies responsible for Mr. Coleman's supervision violated the plaintiffs' civil rights by sending him into the field and trusting his information when there was plenty of evidence that he was unreliable. The suit seeks unspecified damages and a court order prohibiting more drug stings singling out blacks in Tulia.

One plaintiff, Tonya White, was lucky. She had, according to court records, an unbeatable alibi. On the day Mr. Coleman said she sold him cocaine in Tulia, she was more than 300 miles away, in Oklahoma City. She had visited a bank there at almost the precise time of the supposed drug deal, and she had a time-stamped check to prove it.

Many of the defendants have agreed to a settlement of $250,000 in exchange for an agreement not to sue local officials. But they remain free to sue the task force.

Ms. White and the other plaintiff in the suit filed yesterday, Zuri Bossett, were not part of that deal, and they have sued a broad range of defendants, including Mr. Coleman.

Kizzie White, who served four years of a 25-year sentence before being released in June, described her reaction to being pardoned.

"Today is just a wonderful day," Ms. White said. "It's wonderful to be free."

She expressed hope for Tulia's future. "I'm just glad that justice was done," she said, "and I pray that everyone can come together and put this behind us."