- The Washington Times - Monday, June 16, 2003

TULIA, Texas — Twelve persons convicted on drug charges based solely on the testimony of a now-discredited narcotics officer were released yesterday on their own recognizance, as their cases weave their way through the appeals process.

Some 75 out-of-towners, from state lawmakers to civil-rights lawyers, preachers and college students, rode into town — “like an old-time posse,” one remarked — to witness the release of the black men and women.

Most of those released had been sentenced to as much as four years — sent to prison entirely on the testimony of a lone undercover officer who has been charged with perjury. One, a man already in his 60s, was sentenced to 90 years.

Judge Ron Chapman told a packed courtroom that those he released had a great burden that they must live up to the expectations of those who fought for and won their release.

“There are a great number of people,” said the judge, “who have spent a great deal of time, effort and faith in each of you. Members of our legislature, some of whom are present today, are counting on you. Your families and loved ones are counting on you.

“You must refrain from breaking the law. But more than that,” he said sternly, “they are relying on you to make better judgments on how you live your lives.”

When the judge finished his 23-minute ceremony — to a standing ovation — the newly freed defendants joined their families at a party a block from the courthouse.

Judge Chapman, a retired appellate judge from Dallas, was appointed earlier this year as a special examiner to review convictions based on testimony from an investigator for the Panhandle Regional Drug Task Force.

The judge stopped his probe after four days of testimony and said bluntly the undercover officer, Tom Coleman, could not be believed and that all the defendants should be released.

Mr. Coleman claimed he bought drugs from the defendants during an 18-month investigation in which he worked alone and used no audio or video surveillance. No drugs were ever found during a total of 46 arrests and little or no corroborating evidence was introduced at trial.

Some suggested discrimination was behind the arrests. Coleman is white; of the 46 people arrested, 39 are black. Thirty-eight of those arrested were convicted or accepted plea agreements out of fear of lengthy prison terms. Of the 38, just 14 remain in prison.

Mr. Coleman, no longer a law-enforcement officer, lives in Waxahachie and has refused to comment. His eventual perjury trial will take place in Tulia.

As the controversy festered and more evidence of the undercover agent’s duplicity became known, Swisher County hurriedly gathered its officials and offered the defendants a $250,000 settlement to forestall future legal action.

But it took a bill, fostered by two Houston state senators, John Whitmore and Rodney Ellis, to make it possible for the prisoners to be released pending their appeals. Gov. Rick Perry signed that bill June 2.

Mattie White, 51, with her son and daughter among those released yesterday, said she was “happier than you could ever imagine,” but had heard some white folks around the courthouse, “still playing the race thing to the hilt.”

Kareem and Kizzie, her children, have five children of their own. Mrs. White and her husband, Ricky, have cared for them since 1999. “It hasn’t been easy for anyone,” she admitted.

Gary Bledsoe of Austin, a lawyer and president of the Texas chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he was very pleased at the outcome here, but that he feared there were similar cases throughout Texas, maybe not as important or as bizarre as this one, but “significant.”

Not all Tulia residents were pleased by the outcome.

“They made our town out to be a racist place,” said Bertie Jones, who said she was “on the good side of 70.” She said she was friends with many blacks and Hispanics: “We don’t think of race first thing off.”

This story is based in part on wire service dispatches.

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