The New York Times
April 25, 2003
By SIMON ROMERO
A former undercover narcotics agent whose testimony led to drug convictions
of 38 people, nearly all of them black, in a small, predominantly white
Texas Panhandle town was indicted yesterday on three felony perjury charges,
a development further damaging the credibility of his investigation.
The indictment of the former agent, Thomas Coleman, brought yet another
chapter to a racially charged case that divided the town, Tulia, after
almost a tenth of its African-American population was arrested on the
drug charges in 1999.
The indictment, returned by a Swisher County grand jury in Tulia, accuses
Mr. Coleman, who is 43 and white, of lying under oath at least three times
last month at a hearing that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ordered
as a way of helping determine whether four black men convicted in the
case should be freed.
The perjury counts stem from what Mr. Coleman told that hearing about
gasoline theft with which he had been charged in Cochran County, where
he had been a sheriff's deputy before arriving in Tulia, about 80 miles
away, in 1998.
But while none of the counts are directly related to his role in organizing
the Tulia drug arrests, and in then providing the uncorroborated testimony
on which the convictions depended, they will almost certainly further
erode the credibility of a largely discredited investigation in which
Mr. Coleman made a target of blacks with evidence that rarely extended
beyond scribbling suspects' names on his leg.
Mr. Coleman, who has no listed telephone number, could not be reached
for comment yesterday, and it was not clear whether he yet had a lawyer
to defend him.
His indictment follows a surprise deal between prosecutors and defense
lawyers three weeks ago in which they moved to overturn all the convictions
that resulted from his investigation, including those in which defendants
The deal, approved by Ron Chapman, a retired judge who presided over the
hearings last month, in turn followed bizarre and sometimes seemingly
self-damning testimony there by Mr. Coleman, who at one point acknowledged
that he had often used racial slurs.
Lawyers for Tulia residents arrested in the sweep are now gathering information
about it, preparing to submit a detailed explanation of the circumstances
behind each arrest to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. That court,
the state's highest for criminal matters, will then decide whether to
vacate the convictions.
Jeff Blackburn, a lawyer in Amarillo who has represented several of the
defendants, said of Mr. Coleman's indictment: "Swisher County is
now busy trying to make it seem like they're fine, upstanding people who
respect the law. This still doesn't change the fact that there are people
in prison out there chopping cotton in the sun because of Tom Coleman."
Thirteen of those arrested are still in prison, and only one of the 38
convictions has previously been thrown out. The 37 others will remain
unless the appeals court, known for a conservative voting history, decides
to overturn them.
Ponytailed, often clad in a black leather jacket, Mr. Coleman cut an untraditional
figure in the typically ho-hum world of Texas Panhandle law enforcement.
He was hired in January 1998 by the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking
Task Force, a federally financed antidrug consortium of 26 Texas counties.
But first he had been a deputy in Cochran County, where a warrant issued
in the summer of 1998 charged him with having stolen county-owned gasoline
two years before. Mr. Coleman was arrested, though the charge was ultimately
dismissed after he made restitution.
The indictment yesterday said that he had contradicted himself about when
he had learned he was facing that charge, and that he had also lied in
testimony about his arrest and about whether, as required, he had told
the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education
that he had been arrested. Conviction could bring a prison term of up
to 10 years and fines of as much as $30,000.
"This is about perjury, not about $70 worth of stolen gasoline or
racism," Roderique S. Hobson Jr. of Lubbock, the special prosecutor
who obtained the indictment, said in an interview. "This basically
undermines the confidence of the convictions in this sweep."
Vanita Gupta, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund
Inc., which represented several defendants in the Tulia sweep, said, "We're
pleased with the indictment, but not surprised."