Newly Uncovered Evidence Frees Defendant in Tulia Sting

Amarillo Globe-News. April 10, 2002

TULIA - One of the last defendants from the controversial 1999 Tulia drug sting was freed Tuesday on newly uncovered evidence that put her in Oklahoma City at the time she allegedly sold illegal drugs.

Tonya Michelle White, 33, was expected to go on trial Tuesday for allegedly selling cocaine to an undercover agent Tom Coleman.

That won't happen after an emergency grand jury took one hour to decide not to indict White.

The hearing came after District Attorney Terry McEachern received new evidence that showed White made bank transactions and phone calls within hours of the alleged 10:15 a.m. Oct. 9, 1998, drug deal with Coleman.

"When there's inconsistencies, I have doubt in going forward," McEachern said. "I wish her the best, and it's over."

White's attorney, Jeff Blackburn of Amarillo, said the evidence proved it was more than a minor inconsistency.

"Now we know it's (the case) a total lie," he said. "To say it's an inconsistency is like saying the Empire State Building is kind of big."

White was one of 46 defendants - 39 of whom are black - who were indicted in July 1999 after an 18-month undercover investigation that sparked a firestorm of controversy.

White was not arrested until last year, when she turned herself over to authorities, and she was later released on a $25,000 bond.

Fellow defendant Zury Bossett remains to be tried in the case.

White talked to Blackburn from Shreveport, La., over a cellular phone after the verdict.

"She's crying now. It's hard for her to talk," Blackburn said. "She said she's crying because she's happy."
Blackburn brought McEachern copies of a bank transaction made at a Bank One branch in Oklahoma City, phone records and a polygraph test that White
took in December in Dallas.

A copy of a bank slip provided by Blackburn shows an $8 withdrawal made on Oct. 9, 1998. Blackburn said that while the time is illegible on the copy, the deposit was made near the time she was supposed to be in Tulia dealing with Coleman.

"This $8 saved her life," he said.

MCI Worldcom and Telecom USA phone records show White making and receiving calls from her phone line within four hours of the alleged drug deal.
In addition, a polygraph test that White took in December "conclusively showed she was telling the truth," said attorney Chris Hoffman of Amarillo, part of the Tulia Legal Defense Project, created to defend suspects in the drug sting.

McEachern said the case was dismissed "in the interest of justice." He said he always welcomes any evidence that could prove innocence as well as guilt.
"I'm certainly not criticizing the first grand jury's indictment," he said. "I've never tried a case that there weren't inconsistencies."

White's mother, Mattie Russell of Tulia, has other children in jail from the drug sting.

"I knew she was innocent all the time," she said.