Texas Attorney General Opens An Inquiry into '99 Drug Sweep


Attorney 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 two years.
''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. Cornyn's motivations.
''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.