Published on Tuesday, August 20, 2002 by the lndependent/UK
When 46 people were arrested for drug offenses in the sleepy Texas town of Tulia, the local lawman was hailed as a hero. But there was a problem – almost all of the defendants were black, and there wasn't a shred of evidence. Andrew Gumbel reports on an extraordinary story of racism and police corruption
by Andrew Gumbel
Kizzie White was still fast asleep when the police came knocking on her door in the early hours on 23 July, 1999. She had no idea what they could possibly want. After all, she was an ordinary 24-year-old mother of two small children living in Tulia, a small, dusty farming town of 5,000 souls in northern Texas. She had never been in trouble for anything in her life.
They told her, to her astonishment, that she was under arrest on drugs charges and ordered her out of the house. She asked if she could at least put her clothes on, but they said no. "I had on boxers and a T-shirt with no underclothes on. With no shoes on," she recounts much later. "Basically, they took me out half-naked."
When the squad car reached the Swisher County courthouse in the center of town, she saw that dozens of others had been arrested just like her. Men were being paraded across the courthouse lawn in their underwear, their hair uncombed and their faces lost in bewilderment. Every last detainee, as far as she could see, was black, while the arresting officers were uniformly white. To add to the humiliation, local photographers, tipped off in advance, were now busy capturing the bizarre scene for the next day's front pages.
The town's now-defunct newspaper, The Tulia Sentinel, ran a headline on the affair announcing: "Tulia's Streets Cleared of Garbage". An editorial on the inside pages lavished praise on the police for rounding up the town's drug-dealing "scumbags". The racist undertone of the coverage could not have been more clearly signaled; whether or not the police had actually arrested a single drug-dealer, it was incontrovertible fact that they had hauled in more than 10 per cent of Tulia's black population, including one in every two adult males. Six non-blacks were also arrested, but all of these either lived in the black neighborhood in Tulia a shanty area of tenements and trailer homes officially known as the Sunset Addition but popularly referred to by white folks as "Niggertown" or were closely tied to black families.
In all, 46 people were caught up in the police dragnet, although not quite all of them were arrested that morning. They included Kizzie's husband, a white man named William "Cash" Love, her brothers Donnie and Kareem, her sister Tonya, an uncle and five cousins. To believe the indictments subsequently handed down by the district attorney's office, these impoverished farming people were running a high-class racket in powder cocaine. Each of them, prosecutors maintained, had been caught selling the stuff to an undercover narcotics agent called Tom Coleman. Kizzie White, for example, was accused of selling to Coleman no fewer than seven times.
The accusations seemed beyond a joke. After all, none of the 46 people arrested showed the slightest outward sign of material gain that would surely come from the heady lifestyle of a cocaine dealer. When they were arrested, police found no money, no weapons and no trace of illicit drugs of any kind at their houses. There were no fingerprints on the drugs that had been seized. The authorities subsequently failed to produce any photographs, tape-recordings or other concrete evidence that the alleged drug trades had taken place at all.
By now with the issue finally commanding national attention, including a recent series of hard-hitting op-ed pieces in The New York Times and a clutch of high-society fundraising events on the East Coast to keep the legal defense battle going it is clear the accusations were a joke. And yet their cases proceeded through the court system, often with terrifying efficiency. Kizzie was sent away for 25 years. Her brother Kareem got 60. Her brother Donnie, who admitted a history of crack cocaine use but insisted he was not a dealer, went down for 12 years. The man fingered as the alleged ring-leader of the cocaine racket, a 57-year-old pig farmer called Joe Moore, was given 99 years even though he was charged with just two counts of selling an eight-ball (about 3.5 grams, or $200 worth) to Agent Coleman. Even worse off than him was Cash Love, Kizzie's husband and the only defendant accused of making any sizeable sale. Accused by Coleman of selling a whole ounce of cocaine, on top of a number of smaller deliveries, he was sentenced to 434 years in state prison. (Could he have been treated with such mercilessness because his inter-racial marriage was abhorrent to mainstream opinion in Tulia? His family certainly thinks so.)
What made this calamity all the more extraordinary is that it all hung on the word of one man, and a singularly unalluring, unreliable one at that. Tom Coleman claimed that the mass arrests were the result of a painstaking, 18-month undercover operation in which he worked at a "sale barn" digging pig dirt with the townsfolk and slowly put the word out that he might be interested in purchasing drugs.
Something about his story, however, did not add up from the start. To secure 100 cocaine sales without blowing his cover, as Coleman claimed he did, would be an extraordinary feat for an experienced narcotics cop. For a first-timer like Coleman he had worked in law enforcement before, but never in narcotics it would have to be little short of miraculous, and not even his staunchest defenders have suggested he is a miracle-worker. This was a man who never kept records, never filmed or taped anything, never brought a single colleague in on the job. What notes he made he scrawled on his leg, yanking up a trouser leg with one hand while he wrote down a name or date with the other. Later, during preparation for the trials, he claimed he had indeed kept records on paper, but that a secretary at the sheriff's department had accidentally thrown them into a rubbish skip.
His reliability was immediately thrown into doubt. Asked how he identified Freddie Brookins, a young man later sentenced to 20 years behind bars, he admitted that he got the name, and a picture, from the police and worked backwards from there. "I believe I talked to the sheriff on this occasion," Coleman said, according to court papers. "I gave him the description of the subject. And I believe the sheriff asked city policy officers, or somebody, and told me says, 'Well, we got a Freddie Brookins'."
This was not a fail-safe identification method, to say the least. One defendant, Billy Don Wafer, managed to prove Coleman wrong and escape the cold grip of the criminal justice system by proving through employee time sheets and the testimony of his boss that he was at work at the time he was alleged to be selling cocaine.
Another defendant, Yul Bryant, had his case dismissed because Coleman described him as a tall man with bushy hair. In fact, Bryant is 5ft 6in and bald. There are doubts whether the two men ever met before trial.
Throughout, Coleman made a singularly unattractive witness not least because of an astigmatism that caused him to jog his head to one side when answering questions and look as if he did not entirely understand what was being asked. Short, slight and pale, he was capable of looking downright shifty. He would hedge every answer and let his words ramble on, as though he wasn't sure himself what the point was.
Worse, he out-and-out lied. He told one defense lawyer who asked about his background that he had never been arrested or charged for anything other than a traffic ticket "way back when I was a kid". The truth, however, was that he was under indictment even as he worked on his undercover operation in Tulia something that the lawyer quizzing him did not know at the time. While working in Cochran County, another rural area of Texas, he had racked up thousands of dollars in debt with his employers and then, one fine day, simply walked off the job mid-shift and disappeared. The indictment related to the use of a work credit card to buy petrol for his personal use, but it was clear that dissatisfaction with him ran much deeper than casual abuse of petty cash. After he ran out, the Cochran County sheriff wrote a letter to a state commission on police standards declaring: "Mr Coleman should not be in law enforcement if he's going to do people the way he did this town." Technically, the indictment should have disqualified him from working the drugs beat in Tulia, but someone along the line clearly turned a blind eye.
Over the past three years, as more details have trickled out about Coleman's character, the less attractive he has seemed. Two former co-workers have described him as a "compulsive liar", while another said he was a "nut" who carried at least three guns with him at any one time. Once, while sitting in a police patrol car, he accidentally blew out the windscreen with a shotgun lying on his lap.
His former wife says she believes he was incapable of securing 100 undercover cocaine sales, but it was perfectly conceivable that he had fabricated them. In a videotaped interview in which he was invited to discuss the racial dimension of the Tulia blitz, Coleman freely admitted he used the word "nigger" in casual conversations and during the course of his work. He said he didn't think the word was "as profane" as it once was.
None of this made the blindest bit of difference in the courtroom. In almost every case, Coleman's word was good enough for the prosecution, the judge, and the jury which, incidentally, never included a single African-American. Of the 46 people originally indicted, just four have had their cases dropped. A fifth died before coming to trial. The rest got probation at best, and hard time at worst. More than three years after the original bust, 14 people remain behind bars something for which the townsfolk in Tulia, the sheriff and district attorney are yet to demonstrate the slightest hint of bad conscience. Tom Coleman didn't do half badly out of the whole affair: the attorney-general of Texas named him Outstanding Lawman of the Year.
It is impossible to understand what happened in Tulia without first understanding the racial politics of this part of the Deep South, and the way in which that feeds into the US government's zealous prosecution of its self-declared war on drugs. In the words of Jeff Blackburn, a lawyer from Amarillo now leading the charge to try to exonerate those arrested and tossed in jail, Tulia is an "isolated, weird land-that-time-forgot kind of place", a town that never wanted to accept the consequences of the civil rights movement. Until now it has been small enough, and out of the way enough, to be able to pretend simply that civil rights never even happened.
One way the continuing racial apartheid has manifested itself is through alcohol. Swisher County is officially dry, but Tulia's white majority can easily drink at one of two private whites-only clubs. If black people want to drink, they have to do it illegally, exposing them to the wrath of the law. Joe Moore, the pig-farmer and supposed ringleader of the cocaine racket, got caught twice during the Eighties for bootlegging and perhaps some of the animus towards him from that earlier time spilled over into his drugs trial.
Black community leaders and big-city civil rights activists strongly suspect that at least part of the agenda behind the mass arrests was to run Tulia's black population out of town. Yes, they concede, there was a drug problem, as there is across much of rural America where small farms are dying and communities drying up, but the issue was a handful of crack addicts, not a secret cabal of high-level dealers. If there was any powder circulating in Tulia, it was being sold and consumed by the white population, not the blacks.
The only possible motivation for the police round-up, they say, was sheer malice. There is even speculation that Coleman made up the incriminating cocaine packets for profit buying a small amount of the drug, cutting it to make it stretch to dozens of eight-ball doses, then claiming the full street cost of the drugs back from his government employers. Coleman has refused to answer that charge.
"It was a mass lynching that day," says Randy Credico of the New York-based William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice. "Taking down 50 per cent of the male black adult population like that, it's outrageous. It's like being accused of raping someone in Indiana in the 1930s. You didn't do it, but it doesn't matter because a bunch of Klansmen on the jury are going to string you up anyway."
On top of the racial ill-will came the war on drugs, and its own tendency to target racial minorities and the poor. Coleman was hired by the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force, based 50 miles from Tulia in Amarillo, one of almost 1,000 semi-autonomous drug task forces around the US with a mandate to root out the networks of drug production and distribution in even the remotest rural areas. The problem is, such task forces depend on the states and the federal government for funding, and that funding in turn is almost entirely dependent on demonstrable results, as measured in arrests and convictions. One can begin to see the mutual attraction between Coleman and the narcotics guys in Amarillo: he was unscrupulous enough to give them the numbers they needed, and they in turn represented an ideal opportunity for him to redeem his faltering career. Coleman thus came to resemble Nick Corey, the grotesque Texas sheriff in Jim Thompson's classic crime novel Pop. 1280, who is so awash in a sea of corruption that he can dissociate from reality entirely without anyone seeming to notice until it is tragically too late.
"That's Tom Coleman all over," says Jeff Blackburn. "He was a wayward loser, and this was his big chance, so he grabbed it. In some ways I feel sorry for him I won't be sending him Christmas cards or anything. But really he's just a sick pawn in someone else's game. The drug task forces have gone completely out of control, and there are Tom Colemans running riot all over the place. The only thing that makes him different is how provably corrupt he is."
Thanks to Blackburn and his backers from various campaign groups, notably the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Legal Defense Fund, there has been some modest progress in stopping the rot that Coleman created in Tulia. Negative publicity about the fiasco has been instrumental, and in recent months the Swisher County district attorney has shown a certain reluctance to follow through with the outstanding cases apparently out of fear that any new trial would turn into an embarrassing media circus.
In April, another sibling of Kizzie White's, Tanya, managed to clear her name after proving with Jeff Blackburn's help that she was not in Tulia at the time that Coleman said she was selling him cocaine, but was in fact cashing a check in Oklahoma City, some 250 miles away. That was the first major victory for the defense since the affair began. Then, three weeks ago, the final defendant due to come to trial, Zuri Bossett, had her charges dropped by the district attorney. Not only was there no evidence against her other than Coleman's word, she also seemed to lead an exemplary life that had nothing whatsoever to do with drug-dealing. According to Blackburn, the only thing the prosecution had against her was her name and on the indictment they weren't even capable of spelling that right.
The next stage in the battle will be a major habeas corpus writ arguing that the evidence was so tainted, and court procedure so compromised, that a federal judge should immediately quash the sentences against every last defendant and either throw out the cases or order new trials. Blackburn and his fellow campaigners also intend to launch a flurry of civil suits demanding tens of millions of dollars in compensation for the treatment of their clients. "I've deemed it my mission to bring these people into the 20th century, never mind the 21st," Blackburn says. "If the community leaders can't put this situation right by themselves, we're just going to have to force-feed them some justice."
Interestingly, the key leaders in question the county sheriff and the district attorney have gone deathly quiet. Tom Coleman has been equally reticent about addressing the mounting accusations of misconduct against him. For all the kudos attached to his Lawman of the Year award, he lost his job as a narcotics investigator in Tulia. He tried a similar line of work in another part of Texas, but got fired for alleged sexual misconduct with a fellow agent. He is now believed to be working in Waxahachie, outside Dallas, as an investigator for a private credit institution.
© 2002 lndependent Digital (UK) Ltd