Legacy of the Tulia drug sting

Thirteen people remain locked up in Texas on the word of a corrupt cop. In the bucks-for-busts world of drug task forces, that's not an aberration.

Published April 9, 2003 8:33PM (EDT)

America is a level playing field. So, naturally, college admissions policies should never even take race into account at all. At least that's what the Bush administration argued in front of the Supreme Court last week.

But instead of spending an enormous amount of time and effort obsessing about black candidates to the University of Michigan receiving special treatment, maybe the White House should focus on a genuinely pernicious form of affirmative action: the special treatment blacks get when it comes to jail admissions. The damning fact is that while blacks make up 13 percent of drug users, they account for 37 percent of those arrested on drug charges, 55 percent of those convicted and 74 percent of all drug offenders sentenced to prison. Doesn't sound too much like Bush's shining ideal of color-blindness to me.

And if you want some harsh narrative to put flesh and blood to these harsh numbers, take a look at the latest chapter in the horror story exposed last week in Texas, where a judge and special prosecutor agreed to throw out every last conviction stemming from the now notorious Tulia drug sting.

It was a shameful miscarriage of justice: 46 people, 39 of them black -- roughly 15 percent of the small Panhandle town's African-Americans -- were rounded up and arrested in the summer of 1999 solely on the uncorroborated testimony of Tom Coleman, a white undercover cop with a shady past and a fondness for racial epithets. Outrageously long prison sentences soon followed -- even for first-time offenders. But despite growing doubts about Coleman's credibility and howls of protest from civil rights activists, prosecutors stood by their narc -- and the Tulia defendants languished behind bars.

All that changed last week when, following an extraordinary hearing in which Coleman's integrity was shredded -- with former co-workers portraying him as dishonest, untrustworthy and a racist, and Coleman himself labeling his sworn testimony "questionable" -- presiding Judge Ron Chapman declared: "Tom Coleman is simply not a credible witness under oath," and moved to vacate the convictions. Which, in prosecution-friendly Texas, is the equivalent of pointing out that not only does the emperor have no clothes -- he's got a really lousy body.

The sweeping ruling was more than even the most optimistic of those working to undo the injustice in Tulia had dared hope for. The hearing was originally called to address the cases of only four Tulia defendants, but the evidence against Coleman was so damning that prosecutors agreed to toss out the convictions and guilty pleas of everyone he'd testified against. In addition, Swisher County, which encompasses Tulia, agreed to pay $250,000 to the Tulia defendants.

But it's not time to break out the champagne just yet. This, after all, is Texas -- and the judge's ruling is not final. It still has to be approved by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which is not required to accept the recommendation -- and which has a reputation for bending over backwards to uphold convictions.

So we need to keep the media spotlight on the case, and demand that the higher court affirm the judge's ruling. In the meantime, 13 people, convicted on the testimony of an utterly discredited cop, remain locked up, serving sentences of up to 90 years.

It's also important that we don't allow the powers-that-be to dismiss the Tulia fiasco as an aberration -- and dump all the blame at the feet of a single rogue cop. A system around this cop allowed him to be the catalyst for the injustice -- and just because he's discredited doesn't mean that the system that allowed him to flourish has changed.

"Tom Coleman is merely the symptom of a much bigger disease," says Randy Credico of the William Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, which was instrumental in bringing Tulia to the public's attention. "It's this country's out-of-control drug task forces that are the real cancer."

Coleman was hired for the Tulia sting by the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force, one of an estimated 1,000 drug task forces operating across America with very little oversight or accountability. "The Panhandle task force," says Credico, "was the beneficiary of Coleman's lies. The more busts he made and the more convictions he helped win, the more federal grant money the task force received."

In this corrupt, bucks-for-busts world, Coleman was a regular cash cow. So it's not surprising that his task force handlers didn't look too closely at his tainted résumé, and stuck by him until the bitter end. Testifying on Coleman's behalf, one of his supervisors, Lt. Michael Amos, claimed that Coleman had "an exceptional talent at being an undercover officer." Hmmm -- isn't that just another way of saying that he was a damn good liar?

A quick check of the local papers shows there are many more cops with "exceptional talent" running amok in task forces all across Texas, leaving behind a scorched earth of illegal behavior, large-scale arrests of innocent people, and ruined lives.

There have been so many scandals associated with drug task forces deep in the heart of Texas that it has prompted a bipartisan move in the state Legislature to abolish them. The effort is being led by Republican Rep. Terry Keel, a former prosecutor, and Jeff Blackburn of the Tulia Legal Defense Project, the lawyer who spearheaded the Tulia appeals.

When a law-and-order former prosecutor and a crusading civil rights defense attorney team up on a hot-button issue, you know it's an idea whose time has come.

"We won a battle in Tulia," said Blackburn, who donated over $70,000 of his time to the case. "But the war will be lost if we can't change what has become a badly broken system. Texas became addicted to these task forces early in the game; maybe we can take the lead in showing other states that it's possible to break that addiction." That would be a nice switch -- seeing the Lone Star State leading the way in something other than executions.

Drug task forces -- the rabid attack dogs of America's drug war -- routinely target African-Americans. Getting rid of them would be the best kind of affirmative action.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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