Thirty-five former defendants in the infamous drug sting in Tulia, Texas celebrated the announcement today that Texas Governor Rick Perry had granted full pardons for their convictions on alleged drug crimes in 1998-1999.
These pardons finally vindicate the men and women of Tulia who were wrongfully charged and convicted on the word of one dishonest, racist officer with a checkered past. It also ensures that these Tulia residents will not be forced to return to prison to complete harsh sentences ranging up to 341 years.
The pardons follow findings by a trial judge that the rogue officer and the rest of the prosecution team engaged in significant misconduct, including perjury and withholding exculpatory evidence, in order to unlawfully secure the convictions. The pardons also called into substantial question the methods of the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force, which was responsible for hiring, training, and supervising the officer, and the District Attorney's Office, which prosecuted and convicted approximately ten percent of Tulia's black population.
"This is a huge victory in these cases, and we commend the Governor for doing the right thing," said Vanita Gupta, LDF staff attorney. "We are simply overwhelmed with joy and excitement. This marks the end of the first stage in a four-year struggle to expose what really happened in Tulia, Texas. Now we enter the second stage - filing civil lawsuits to fully expose the wrongs in Tulia."
The attorneys for former Tulia defendants Tonya White and Zuri Bossett filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court in Amarillo, Texas today against Swisher County and its officials, including former undercover narcotics agent Tom Coleman, Sheriff Larry Stewart, District Attorney Terry McEachern, as well as the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force, its constituent members, its Board of Governors, and its Amarillo Police Department employees who were responsible for hiring, training, and supervising Tom Coleman.
Tonya White and Zuri Bossett are two African-American women who were charged with selling cocaine to Coleman during the notorious 1999 Tulia undercover operation. Ms. White was able to establish her innocence by providing a time-stamped check showing that she was actually more than 300 miles away at a bank in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. As a result, on April 11, 2002, two days before Ms. White's scheduled trial, District Attorney McEachern dismissed the indictment against her. Likewise, Ms. Bossett was not living in Tulia at the time of her alleged drug sale, and the State was never able to produce any credible and corroborating evidence that Coleman allegedly used to implicate Ms. Bossett in the Tulia sting. District Attorney McEachern dismissed the indictment against Ms. Bossett on July 23, 2002.
In their civil complaint, Ms. White and Ms. Bossett allege, among other things, that officials violated their civil rights by falsely arresting them, falsely filing a police report against them, falsely testifying against them in the grand jury without probable cause, and falsely swearing out an inaccurate arrest warrant to effectuate their arrests. The plaintiffs also allege that officials violated their civil rights by failing to adequately screen Coleman during the hiring process, failing to adequately train Coleman, and failing to adequately supervise Coleman' s activities.
Furthermore, Ms. White and Ms. Bossett allege that officials engaged in a conspiracy to violate their civil rights, motivated by racial animus directed at African Americans in Tulia. Other claims include intentional infliction of emotional distress and malicious prosecution.
The filing of today's suit is one more step in our quest to right the horrific wrongs that have been inflicted on our clients and the entire Tulia community. Ms. White and Ms. Bossett bring this lawsuit to hold the officials responsible for the sting operation accountable for their patently illegal behavior and to further expose the conduct that gave rise to the sting.