Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Tulia by Nate Blakeslee

Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas TownThis is one I just happened upon at the library - I didn't know anything at all about the events chronicled by journalist Nate Blakeslee from 1999 to 2003, so I took a chance, and I'm very glad I did.  Tulia is a small town in the Texas Panhandle, and in 1999, a joint County-State-Federal drug enforcement task force raided it and arrested more than 40 of its citizens on charges of cocaine sales.  The vast majority of those charged were black and impoverished, and the arrests netted fully one fifth of the town's total black residents.

Just another sad story about the intersection of race and poverty with drug use, one might think.  But this bust was unusual in several respects.  First, all of the arrests were for delivery of powder cocaine, instead of the much more common crack.  Second, all of the arrests depended on one sole piece of evidence:  the testimony of Tom Coleman, the Swisher County undercover officer who made, according to his own testimony, more than 100 buys from more than 40 different people over an 18-month period. 

There was no corroboration for these arrests - no police witnesses, no audio or video recordings, nothing but the often vague and cursory descriptions of each bust by Coleman, and the drugs he supposedly recovered.  On this basis alone, more than two dozen people were sent to State Prison for terms ranging from 2 years to 361 years, by the Swisher County Sheriff and District Attorney, neither of whom ever questioned in any way the credibility of their sole witness, Coleman.

And Tom Coleman, it later turned out, was a very bad man.  The son of a revered Texas Ranger, Coleman has been described by his former employers in law enforcement as "not trustworthy", "paranoid", "racist", "a thief", and "a pathological liar".  He was actually placed under arrest by the Swisher County Sheriff in the middle of his tenure as an undercover officer, on charges of theft filed by his previous employer, the Sheriff of Cochran County, Texas. 

Coleman was returned to work one week later, after making restitution for his thefts and reporting the charges "dismissed" to the Sheriff.  Oddly, the Sheriff never inquired further about the charge, and failed to complete the paperwork necessary to report the arrest, per procedure, to a nationwide criminal tracking database.  During the trials of the Tulia defendants, both the Sheriff and the District Attorney, as well as Coleman's direct supervisor, testified that they had the highest confidence in Coleman, and were unaware of any negative information in his work history.

During the trials, a coalition of interested Tulians, defendants' attorneys, and local journalists (including Blakeslee, writing for the liberal Texas Observer Magazine) worked together to attract national attention to what was developing into a major scandal.  It looked very much as if the County's Sheriff and DA, the Task Force leadership, and even the trial judge, had voluntarily either closed their eyes to, or actively covered up the malfeasance of their heroic officer, even as the continuing trials revealed more and more evidence of his corruption.

Ultimately, four of the defendents were represented in state Habeas proceedings by a combination of local defense, NAACP Legal Fund, and private firm pro bono lawyers.  During the course of this hearing, under a new judge, all of the very sordid details of this ugly story came out, including allegations that Coleman had overcut the drugs in his possession to multiply the amount available for buys, and then used the cash from these buys to pay the restitution of his thefts.

I won't reveal any more of the story, in the interests of those who would like to discover the rest of this fascinating story for themselves.  Blakeslee's writing is clear, concise, and logical, making the complexities of the case easy to understand.  He also demonstrates a strong familiarity with the background of West Texas politics and history, as well as a deep understanding of the paradoxes inherent in the 1990s "War on Drugs".  But my greatest appreciation is reserved for the simmering outrage that underlies the objective reporting of this disgraceful episode. 
Tulia reminds us that, even as we move into the new millenium, the age-old forces of prejudice, dishonesty, and corruption remain alive and well in the midst of the organizations we give the power to deprive ourselves of life, liberty and property, not just in Texas, but all over the country.  It is surely no coincidence that a tragedy of this massive scale occurred during the tenure of a Texas Governor, later President, who so embodied the retrograde beliefs that pervaded this injustice:  George W. Bush.

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