In July of 1999, 10% of the African-American pop­u­la­tion in Tulia, Texas, a small town of 5,000 in the Texas Panhandle, was arrest­ed on drug charges sole­ly on the tes­ti­mo­ny of a sin­gle under­cov­er offi­cer. The arrests of 46 peo­ple, 39 of them black, result­ed in 38 con­vic­tions for var­i­ous drug charges with sen­tences of up to 90 years in prison. In ear­ly April 2003, a Dallas judge threw out all 38 drug con­vic­tions from Tulia because they were based on ques­tion­able tes­ti­mo­ny from a sin­gle under­cov­er agent accused of racial prej­u­dice. On June 16, 12 of the defen­dants remain­ing in the case (most of the oth­ers accept­ed plea-bar­gains in order to avoid lengthy prison sen­tences), were freed after Texas Gov. Perry signed a bill autho­riz­ing their release.

The offi­cer respon­si­ble for the racial­ly moti­vat­ed arrests is Tom Coleman, a Texas cop with a check­ered past and a self-declared fond­ness for racial epi­thets. At the time, Coleman was work­ing for the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force, one of an esti­mat­ed 1,000 drug task forces oper­at­ing across America with very lit­tle over­sight or account­abil­i­ty. According to Randy Credico of the William Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, which was instru­men­tal in bring­ing Tulia to the pub­lic’s atten­tion, “The Panhandle task force was the ben­e­fi­cia­ry of Coleman’s lies. The more busts he made and the more con­vic­tions he helped win, the more fed­er­al grant mon­ey the task force received.”

Perversely, in this ““bucks-for-busts”” world, Coleman was named Texas’ out­stand­ing nar­cotics offi­cer in 2000. This is sur­pris­ing since Coleman kept no writ­ten records, not a sin­gle pho­to­graph was tak­en, no video was shot, and no one observed his buys. Every ensu­ing con­vic­tion relied only on his word. The Texas judge who freed the defen­dants in June called Coleman “the most devi­ous, non-respon­sive law enforce­ment wit­ness this Court has wit­nessed in 25 years on the bench in Texas.” According to the Court’s find­ings, Coleman sub­mit­ted false reports, mis­rep­re­sent­ed his inves­tiga­tive work, and misiden­ti­fied var­i­ous defen­dants dur­ing his inves­ti­ga­tion.

Subsequent to the April rul­ing, Coleman was indict­ed on three counts of per­jury in an unre­lat­ed case. Although he faces up to 10 years in prison, his mis­deeds in the Tulia case have yet to be for­mal­ly rec­og­nized. Furthermore, the ““Tulia 12”” have not been com­plete­ly exon­er­at­ed. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals must approve the rul­ing for their con­vic­tions, and those of the 26 oth­ers ensnared in the bogus drug sting, to be thrown out. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles should also do its part by par­don­ing the defen­dants or grant­i­ng clemen­cy or com­mu­ta­tion in the cas­es.

The ACLU of Texas has urged state law­mak­ers to vote for a bill that requires cor­rob­o­ra­tion of under­cov­er law enforce­ment offi­cers’ tes­ti­mo­ny before a defen­dant is con­vict­ed. However, racial­ly moti­vat­ed arrests and vio­la­tions of civ­il lib­er­ties like the Tulia case, con­tin­ue to run amock in our judi­cial sys­tem.
(Provided by the ACLU)