Texas Agent Indicted After Hearing to Review '99 Drug Sting

The New York Times
April 25, 2003


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 pleaded guilty.

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."