Bad Times in Tulia, Texas

Date Filed: 09/29/2000

On July 23, 1999, more than ten percent of Tulia’s African-American population was arrested as the result of a drug “sting” conducted by a lone police officer with a troubled history in law enforcement. Swisher County deputy sheriff Tom Coleman alleged that 46 Tulia residents sold him drugs. Forty of those arrested were African-American, three were Mexican, and the remaining three were whites with biracial children or marital ties to the African-American community. Initially, those arrested, all of whom are poor, were inclined to go to trial to prove their innocence. The guilty verdicts, however, piled up with sentences ranged from 20 to 434 years. More and more of the arrestees then decided to take pleas. Their sentences range from one year of probation to 18 years in prison.

In a “sting” that yielded no money, no drugs and no weapons, 40 residents of Tulia’s African-American community were arrested on the word of Tom Coleman, a lone undercover narcotics agent who used no surveillance video or audio tape as corroborating evidence. No second officer was present. There was only one witness: Coleman. Indeed, in most of the cases there was only one bit of evidence: Coleman’s testimony. Coleman’s word, at best, was unreliable. Later evidence revealed that he had a “checkered past” as a law enforcement officer in other Texas counties.

Findings of inconsistencies and impossible scenarios in Coleman’s incident reports marked his investigation as questionable, casting doubt on his reliability. Clear evidence was presented that Coleman both misidentified defendants and fabricated evidence. On April 9, 2002, the district attorney dismissed the charge against Tulia “sting” arrestee Tonya White after her defense counsel presented him with a bank record showing that Ms. White made a transaction from a bank in Oklahoma at the time Coleman alleged she was selling him cocaine in Tulia, more than 300 miles away. Another defendant, Billy Don Wafer, had employee time sheets to establish that he was at work at the time that he allegedly sold Coleman drugs. Additionally, the district attorney dismissed the case of Yul Bryant after it was discovered that Coleman described Bryant as being “a tall black man with bushy type hair wearing a white t-shirt and black jogging pants.” Bryant is actually 5’6″ and has been bald for years.

LDF reviewed the circumstances of the Tulia cases that had gone to trial. We found that the district attorney’s suppression of information about Coleman’s background, coupled with the ineffective representation received by many of the arrestees, resulted in little to no cross-examination of Coleman’s testimony. In a few cases, the presiding judge sealed Coleman’s employment records and refused to allow information about his background to be presented at trial. LDF lead the effort to overturn all of the convictions and pleas on the grounds that they were obtained unconstitutionally. We represented some of the Tulia defendants who were given long sentences, recruiting several high-profile law firms, including Hogan & Hartson and Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, to represent other Tulia defendants.

With LDF’s help, nearly all those convicted in the “sting” were pardoned by the governor in August, 2003. LDF and co-counsel then went on to negotiate a $5 million settlement for the former defendants, paid by the City of Amarillo. Additionally, in 2004, the federally-funded narcotics task force responsible for the unlawful arrests was disbanded. A year later, Tom Coleman, the rogue agent who was celebrated and named “Lawman of the Year” following the alleged bust in 1999, was found guilty of perjury. Coleman may only be part of a larger problem, however. The Tulia “sting” is representative of the failed “War on Drugs,” which disproportionately targets minorities, and also often includes racially-biased police practices and secures convictions only after prosecutorial misconduct. The lack of federal oversight of federally-funded drug task forces and the inadequate training of many officers assures that the abuses witnessed in Tulia will be repeated. The only recourse is significant reform of the practices used in the “War on Drugs.” Hopefully, the injustices committed in Tulia will continue to underscore the urgent need for reform, as well as for justice.