Town of Tulia

Texas “Officer of the Year” chalked up 38 wrongful convictions

Thirty-eight residents of the Texas panhandle town of Tulia were convicted of drug offenses in 1999 and 2000 based on uncorroborated allegations by Thomas Coleman, an undercover agent for a federally funded multi-jurisdictional narcotics task force. For his efforts, Coleman was designated “Officer of the Year” in 2000 by Texas Attorney General (later U.S. Senator) John Cornyn.

After evidence of massive fraud by Coleman was brought to light by journalists and volunteer lawyers, Texas Governor Rick Perry pardoned thirty-five of the defendants in 2003. Two of the remaining defendants were ineligible for pardons because they had received deferred adjudication after pleading guilty. The thirty-eighth defendant was a juvenile whose conviction would not remain on his record.

The convicted defendants were among 47 men and women — 12 of the latter — from whom Coleman claimed to have purchased narcotics on 117 occasions during the 18 months leading up to their arrests in a predawn sweep on July 23, 1999. Swisher County District Attorney Terry D. McEachern proceeded with the prosecutions even though no illegal drugs were found in the possession of any of the defendants and even though there were no witnesses to or recordings of any of the alleged transactions. Later it would come to light that Coleman carried a card proclaiming himself a member of the Ku Klux Klan — a troubling fact given that, in a town with only 300 to 400 black residents, thirty four of the 38 convicted defendants were black.

Defendants who invoked their right to jury trials in late 1999 and early 2000 were convicted in short order and handed severe sentences. Terms ranging from twenty to ninety years following jury convictions were imposed for alleged cocaine sales on four black defendants — Freddie Brookins, Jr., Christopher Eugene Jackson, Joe Welton Moore, and Jason Jerome Williams. The longest sentence, however, was given to William Cash Love, a 25-year-old white father of a mixed-race child. Coleman accused Love of selling cocaine on eight occasions. Love was sentenced to 361 years.

Thirty defendants — 27 blacks, two Hispanics, and one non-Hispanic Caucasian — agreed to plead guilty in exchange for relative leniency. The longest sentences resulting from pleas were eighteen years for three blacks — Dennis Mitchell Allen, Willie B. Hall, and Timothy Wayne Towery. Another black, Donald Wayne Smith, pled guilty to five sales of powdered cocaine and was sentenced to twelve and a half years.

Blacks who pled guilty in exchange for prison sentences ranging from one to 10 years were Troy Benard, Armenu Jerrod Ervin, Jason Paul Fry, Mandrell Henry, Denise Kelly, Vincent Dwight McCray, Yolanda Yvonne Smith, Alberta Stell Williams, and Michelle Williams. One black, Marilyn Joyce Cooper, traded a guilty plea for a sentence of just three days, and another, Romona Lynn Strickland, for a $2,000 fine.

Guilty pleas in exchange for probation were entered by another ten blacks — James Ray Barrow, Leroy Barrow, Michael Fowler, Vickie Fry, Cleveland Joe Harrison, Eliga Kelly, Sr., Joseph Corey Marshall, Kenneth Ray Powell, Finaye Shelton, and Lawanda Smith. Two blacks, Etta Kelly and Benny Lee Robinson, traded guilty pleas for deferred adjudication. The Hispanics who pled guilty were Daniel G. Olivarez, who received twelve years, and Laura Ann Mata, who received five years. The only white defendant among the plea-bargaining group, Calvin Kent Klein, drew 10 years. Sixteen-year-old Jonathan Loftin, who was black, was sentenced to boot camp for juvenile offenders.

Following the early round of trials, only two defendants rejected plea deals. They were Kizzie Rashawn White and Kareem Abdul Jabbar White, siblings who apparently shared disdain for pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit. The Whites, who were black, were convicted in separate jury trials. In exhorting Kizzie White’s jury to convict, McEachern mentioned that Coleman had been designated “the most outstanding law enforcement officer of the year” and asked rhetorically, “If you can’t believe him, well, then, who can you believe?”

In fact, McEachern knew that Coleman had been arrested in 1998 in nearby Cochran County on charges of, among other things, using a county debit card to buy gasoline for his personal use. McEachern had learned of Coleman’s arrest record in July 1999, but had illegally withheld that information from defense lawyers and had done nothing when Coleman testified that he had never been arrested. The jury, of course, found Kizzie White guilty and she was sentenced to twenty-five years. Her brother received sixty years — pushing the total prison time imposed on adults in the Tulia cases to more than 765 years.

The Texas Court of Appeals in Amarillo affirmed the first four cases that came before it, deeming Coleman’s testimony factually sufficient to support the guilty verdicts. Meanwhile, however, two white Tulia residents, Charles Kiker and Alan Bean — who said they were offended by what they saw as a travesty of justice — had launched a group called Friends for Justice. The group brought the story to the attention of Nate Blakeslee, a writer for the Texas Observer, who wrote about the case first in June 2000. Blakeslee’s report attracted the attention of, among others, Vanita Gupta, a young lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York. Gupta assembled a legal team to represent the imprisoned defendants in state habeas corpus proceedings.

In July 2000, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert launched a series of columns about the Tulia cases, the first of which was headlined “Kafka in Tulia.” Herbert’s columns, in Blakeslee’s view, shamed the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals — normally hostile to habeas claims — into sending four cases back to the trial court for evidentiary hearings. The cases were remanded to Judge Ed Self, who had presided over not only those cases but most of the others as well.

In late 2002, when Judge Self was seeking reelection, Friends for Justice accused him of having improperly suppressed evidence regarding Coleman at the trials. The summer before the Tulia arrests, Coleman had been charged with felony of public property in another county — a fact that McEachern, the prosecutor, had withheld from the Tulia defendants’ trial lawyers. Self responded with a letter to the Tulia Herald defending his actions and, in the process, violating the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct by commenting on pending matters. On that basis, the defense team demanded that Self withdraw from the cases. He acquiesced and was replaced by a retired Dallas judge, Ron Chapman.

After Coleman testified at a hearing in March 2003, Judge Chapman found that he had committed “blatant perjury” and branded him “the most devious, non-responsive law enforcement witness this court has witnessed in twenty-five years on the bench in Texas.” At this point, the legal team filed habeas petitions for all of the defendants who remained in prison and began negotiations with the state to settle all of the cases, not only the four that had been remanded. The state stipulated to Chapman’s findings and joined the defense team in recommending that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals vacate all of the convictions. Meanwhile, on April 24, Coleman was indicted by a Swisher County grand jury on three counts of perjury, but the men and women he had unjustly sent to prison remained there.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, signaling that it was in no hurry to act, ordered that several of the habeas petitions be amended because they lacked the defendant’s birth date. Editorials in both Texas and the national newspapers decried what was generally perceived as a stalling tactic. In response to media pressure, the Texas Legislature quickly enacted legislation authorizing Chapman to release the defendants on bail — a power he exercised with dispatch, releasing them all on June 16. They were not clear yet, however — and would not be until August 22 when the governor granted pardons to the thirty-five who were eligible.

Federal civil rights suits ensued, leading in March 2004 to a $6 million settlement, the disbanding of the multi-jurisdictional narcotics task force, and the forced retirement of officials who were supposed to have been supervising Coleman. For the defendants, who had spent a total of nearly seventy-one years behind bars on fabricated charges, the compensation worked out to a little more than $84,500 a year.

On January 14, 2005, Coleman was convicted of perjury. The crime was punishable by up to ten years in prison and a $10,000 fine, but Coleman, whose malfeasance had cost so many so much, would neither spend a day in prison nor pay a cent. He was sentenced to ten years’ probation.

The following June, McEachern, the prosecutor who illegally concealed Coleman’s criminal history and suborned his perjury, was held to account by the State Bar of Texas. He was allowed to continue practicing law, but publicly sanctioned and placed on two years’ probation — meaning that, should he be caught doing anything else illegal or unethical during his probation, the consequence could be serious.

— Rob Warden