- The Washington Times - Monday, June 16, 2003

TULIA, Texas (AP) — Thirteen persons imprisoned on the testimony of a discredited undercover officer were to be released today, nearly four years after they and dozens of other residents were arrested on drug charges.

“I’m so happy for them,” said Billy Wafer, one of the 46 arrested in the 1999 sweep that capped an 18-month undercover operation. “It’s been a long time coming, but it’s finally here.”

Mr. Wafer wasn’t charged; he had an alibi and his case was dismissed.

But 38 others were convicted on the uncorroborated word of an undercover drug agent, Tom Coleman — now under indictment on perjury charges — or accepted plea agreements out of fear of lengthy prison terms.

Black activists have called the case racially motivated. Of the 46 arrested in the small Panhandle town, 39 are black. Mr. Coleman is white.

Mr. Coleman said he bought drugs from the defendants, but he worked alone and used no audio or video surveillance. No drugs were found during the arrests, and little or no corroborating evidence was introduced in court.

Today, 12 blacks and one Hispanic were to appear before State District Judge Ron Chapman, who was expected to free them on personal recognizance bonds while their cases are on appeal.

Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill June 2 allowing for the releases; it could take as long as two years for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to rule on their cases.

Judge Chapman had presided over hearings for four of the defendants and said Mr. Coleman was “simply not a credible witness under oath.”

The judge recommended that the 38 convictions be overturned and new trials ordered, but a special prosecutor has said no cases will be retried.

Mr. Coleman, a contract agent for the Panhandle Regional Drug Task Force, was indicted in April on three charges of aggravated perjury stemming from his testimony during the hearings Judge Chapman oversaw.

The district attorney who prosecuted many of the cases, Terry McEachern, has denied wrongdoing.

A 14th defendant included in the governor’s bill is not eligible for bail because his case is still pending on direct appeal, said Vanita Gupta, assistant counsel with the Legal Defense and Education Fund at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Miss Gupta, one of many attorneys involved in the cases, said she was “overjoyed and relieved” that the defendants who were “ripped from their families” finally will be free.

“It is incredible that all three branches of the Texas government have recognized the need for action to rectify the injustice that took place in Tulia,” she said. “But until these individuals receive full and complete relief, whether through a pardon or an overturning of their convictions, this matter is not resolved.”

Mattie White is the mother of two prisoners being released: Kareem White, 27, sentenced to 60 years, and daughter Kizzie, 26, sentenced to 25 years. A third child, Donnie White, was paroled in January last year.

“I thought, ‘It’s not going to ever happen,’” Mrs. White said. “I would go off and cry to myself. But with [my childrens] prayers and everybody else’s, I just caught on to it and started believing they would” be freed.



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