- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 7, 2006


By Nate Blakeslee

Public Affairs, $26.95, 464 pages


It was only six years ago that it happened, but it could have been 60. Decades after the gains of the civil rights movement in the battle against discrimination, this book warns that it isn’t over. This is the disturbing chronicle of what happened in the bleak little west Texas town of Tulia when a rogue cop ran amok and organized a drug sweep that put a substantial number of the black population in jail for allegedly dealing powdered cocaine.

Tom Coleman, the police officer who was a son of one of the revered Texas Rangers, was later named Lawman of the Year for a case in which, despite virtually no evidence, most of the defendants were convicted and one was sentenced to 99 years in jail. If you think this is shocking, you should. It took until 2003 for a reversal of most of the convictions and a reformation of some Texas laws. In a final irony, lawman Coleman got 10 years’ probation for perjury.

Vanita Gupta, a Philadelphia lawyer and Yale graduate who was a child of middle class Indian immigrants, was a leader of the post-conviction representation of the Tulia defendants. She saw the case as a window into another century. Watching a television filming of blacks lined up by burly white guards in Tulia, she listened to a black teenager tell reporters, “The only difference between 1920 and now is they can’t take us out and hang us on a tree. They can just send us to prison for life. It’s the same thing. We’ll never be free.”

This book is dark evidence of the kind of racism that still lingers in America, from corrupt cops and judges to an indifference to justice most commonly associated with the deep south of the 1930s. Mr. Blakeslee, a Texan journalist, has done a superb job of investigative reporting of a scandal whose ramifications went far beyond a drug bust. He tracks the history of a town that was a prism of the problems that beset the settlement of the West.

In Swisher County where Tulia is located, there was a history of battles between ranchers and the farmers infringing on the range, of choking dust storms, freezing winters, blazing hot summers and no water. The story is told of a cattleman who said if the region only had water, it would be paradise. His foreman was said to have responded, “So would hell.” Yet Tulia had its day in the post-war 1950s when the Texas panhandle was called the “golden spread” in the state’s last big cattle boom.

But within less than 40 years, Tulia was a virtual ghost town full of derelict warehouses, empty grain elevators and fields full of rusty farm equipment. By 1999, the population was barely 5000, with a black community numbering about 350 of whom about half were children.

Mr. Blakeslee emphasizes that blacks numbered 38 of the 47 defendants in the now notorious, dawn drug raid by local deputies, state troopers and a black-clad federal task force from neighboring Amarillo, operating on information from Tom Coleman, an undercover cop whose credibility apparently was never questioned. Posing as an unemployed construction worker, in 18 months of undercover work in Tulia, he reported making more than 100 purchases of illegal drugs, mostly powdered cocaine.

Yet investigation revealed that Mr. Coleman had never videotaped such buys, or worn a wire to corroborate his evidence. It also noted that he had infiltrated a community of low income blacks where marijuana and crack were the drugs of choice. The raid which resulted in the arrest of 20 per cent of the black adult population in Tulia meant every fifth person in that community was dealing cocaine and that raised the question of how so much cocaine and so little crack was being peddled in a group with 50 per cent unemployment.

It also raised the question of why reasonable doubt did not enter the thinking of Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart, who hired Mr. Coleman, district attorney, Terry McEachern, who prosecuted the cases “with zeal, ” or the jurors who handed down “staggeringly long” sentences even for defendants with no prior records. As Mr. Blakeslee put it, the case in many aspects “defied logic.”

Almost as difficult to believe as the Tulia sting operation are the dimensions of the legal battle it took to reverse the conviction of the Tulia defendants and disclose that Mr. Coleman had a record of leaving jobs with unpaid debts and had a reputation as a racist and pathological liar obsessed with guns. Mr. Blakeslee’s meticulous account of court proceedings and legal actions underscores the racist roots as well as the inadequacies of justice on the Texas panhandle.

It was not until 2003 that Texas Governor Rick Perry signed pardons for 35 of the Tulia defendants and civil rights lawsuits were filed against 30 cities and counties involved in the narcotics task force which relied on Mr. Coleman. In 2004, the city of Amarillo disbanded the task force and agreed to a settlement of $5 million to be split among the defendants.

After a five day trial in 2005, at which his mother testified in his defense, Mr. Coleman was found guilty of one count of perjury and sentenced to probation. Mr. Blakeslee observes wryly that the felony conviction at least meant the end of Mr. Coleman’s law enforcement career.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy Newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.

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