BY JIM YARDLEY
General John Cornyn of Texas has opened an investigation into a 1999 drug
sweep in which about 12 percent of the black population of Tulia, Tex.,
was arrested. The decision failed to appease civil rights lawyers, who
describe the arrests in an undercover operation as atrocities and want
the convictions overturned. Mr. Cornyn, who announced the investigation
on Monday, suggested that he had opened the inquiry partly because of
confusion that had arisen this month about whether the United States Justice
Department was continuing its own civil rights investigation of more than
''The attorney general has grown concerned that there was some confusion
among some circles about whether the investigation was open and that it
was moving slowly,'' said Jane Shepperd, a spokeswoman for Mr. Cornyn.
The confusion arose after a Justice Department official described the
investigation as closed in a letter to the American Bar Association. Justice
Department officials now say that letter was ''in error'' and that the
investigation is continuing.
The announcement from Mr. Cornyn comes as he is running for a vacant seat
in the United States Senate against Mayor Ron Kirk of Dallas, who is trying
to become the state's first black senator. The Tulia cases have not become
a major issue in the Senate race, but groups including the NAACP Legal
Defense and Educational Fund Inc., the William Moses Kunstler Fund for
Racial Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union have criticized
the drug arrests as racially biased.
Vanita Gupta, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said the value
of a state investigation was limited, nearly three years after the drug
sweep. Instead, Ms. Gupta called on Mr. Cornyn to take control of the
cases from the local district attorney and either seek to overturn the
convictions or order new trials. She also said she was skeptical of Mr.
''It smacks too much like kind of a political solution for Cornyn, rather
than a genuine commitment,'' Ms. Gupta said. ''Cornyn has known about
these cases for three years. If he wants to see justice done, then he
knows that he needs to take over these cases. These cases have become
a national embarrassment to Texas.''
In July 1999, 46 people, all but 3 of them black, were arrested on drug
charges in Tulia, a town of about 5,000 people. In nearly every case,
the only evidence against the defendants was the testimony of a sole undercover
agent, Tom Coleman. Mr. Coleman did not use wiretaps for corroboration,
and records show he often filed shoddy reports and had a previous work
record in law enforcement that included a misdemeanor charge for stealing
gasoline from a county pump.
Jeff Blackburn, an Amarillo, Tex., lawyer representing more than 20 defendants
in the cases, said that 13 people remained in jail on sentences as long
as 320 years. Mr. Blackburn said lawyers were filing motions seeking new
trials in every case.