Drugs

Finally, Justice In Tulia

The Tulia 46 may finally see justice served -- but the damage of the national drug war isn't anywhere near being undone.
Officer Tom Coleman must have been gloating in the early morning hours of July 23, 1999.

As 46 men and women were shaken out of their beds and paraded in front of TV cameras in this small, rural town in the Texas Panhandle, Coleman seemed to feel good about what he had just done as an undercover drug agent working for the Swisher County Sheriff's Department.

He's not wearing much of a smirk today. Owing to a startling twist in a case that has come to represent all that is misguided about the American drug war, the truth about Coleman and what happened in Tulia has finally been exposed.

At a special hearing on Monday, Dallas Judge Ron Chapman announced that Coleman was "not a credible witness," and immediately recommended new trials be granted for all who had been swept up and incarcerated after that morning's drug sting. Within hours, the state's prosecution had agreed to throw out all the convictions, admitting that the entire debacle had been a "travesty of justice." Prosecutors said they would not retry the defendants.

After four years, the Tulia 46 may finally see justice served.

Racial Overtones

The Tulia case attracted national attention because all of the early morning arrests were made without drug evidence, audio or video surveillance, corroborating witnesses, or comprehensive note-taking of any kind.

Out of the 46 arrests, 22 men and women received prison sentences--up to 99 years in length. As if to confirm the guilt of those accused, over half of the defendants wound up pleading guilty in exchange for probation or somewhat shorter prison sentences.

In this mostly white Texan town, something that wasn't lost on anyone was the fact that 39 of the 46 people arrrested were African American - comprising nearly 15 percent of the town's African American population. (Most of the remaining seven were whites involved in interracial relationships.)

On its face, the racial overtones of the situation were so obvious that the case soon attracted attention from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) and the State Attorney General's office. (The DOJ, however, failed to call for a single oversight hearing or produce a single report on the situation. It was New York Times columnist Bob Herbert who finally seemed to light a tiny flame under their federal feet with his outraged writings on the subject.)

Among those arrested in Tulia were many bright young adults with no criminal histories to speak of, an elderly hog farmer, and single mothers who had never left their own small town.

As the post-conviction appeals mounted, it was revealed that Coleman had an extensive background of making racist comments about African Americans and Latinos, in addition to past allegations of sexual harassment, misconduct, and skipping out of town leaving unpaid debts.

Tip of the Iceberg

But what happened in Tulia--or what was allowed to happen--is far from being an isolated case.

"It is really important for people to understand that this is not a case of misconduct with respect to one rogue cop," explains Deborah Small of the Drug Policy Alliance, which initiated a nationwide effort to bring attention to the Tulia case. "Throughout the country, poor communities are victimized every day by these same kinds of polices that provide incentives for [law enforcement] to make as many arrests as possible."

"What happened to the people of Tulia should serve as a wake-up call," affirms Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Justice Policy Institute.

Indeed, Tulia should serve as a wake-up call, because the American drug war has evolved into the most currently visible symptom of an absolutist law-and-order mindset. It has sucked state and federal budgets dry and fed an insatiable prison system; it has taken precedence over constitutional rights to privacy, unreasonable search and seizure and due process--no matter what a person's color, class or creed.

The drug war, and the attendant concentration of power into the hands of prosecutors and away from judges, individuals and their defense attorneys, has become a full-blown frontal assault on the integrity of the American criminal justice system.

It's time to call all of this for what it is, as Vanita Gupta of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund says from Tulia: "A national shame."

"Tulia is just the tip of the iceberg," she adds. "We do feel victorious--and hope that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirms Judge Chapman's recommendation--but we also know that the problem is much deeper than what happened here."

In particular, says Gupta, a careful accountability for how drug war monies are used--and to what effect--is something that the DOJ needs to begin to address in earnest, rather than doling out huge sums of funds and being content to sit back as the drug arrest numbers soar.

The events in the Tulia case provide a stark example of the realities of drug prosecutions all over the country," notes Jeff Robinson, president of the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "Defendants are often faced with the dilemma of asserting their factual innocence at the risk of being wrongly convicted and serving horrendous prison sentences."

What Robinson describes is precisely what happened in Tulia, as dozens of men and women watched with mounting horror as their neighbors and friends were found guilty and received long prison terms. With hopes of eventually being reunited with their families and having a semblance of a life after incarceration, these Tulia residents pleaded guilty in exchange for more favorable treatment from the prosecution.

Other Times, Other Tulias

Last fall, I watched one Tulia resident, Mattie White, stand in front of a small room of reporters, struggling to find a way to put her grief into words. Four of White's relatives were arrested that morning in 1999. A son and a daughter wound up in prison, so far away from her that she had only seen them twice in the years since their separation.

I watched as White, a big, strong woman--a full-time prison guard herself--trembled in front of the room. Mattie wanted nothing more than to be able to see and hold her children who had been sent hundreds of miles away to sit in isolated concrete cells.

Today, says Gupta, the mood in Tulia is different. Said Mattie White, "We've been praying for this for four years, and we haven't ever given up." White has hope that she'll be reunited with her kids, and the lawyers who took on the legal challenge in Texas feel good about what they've been able to accomplish.

For Mattie's sake, and for all those who worked so hard to expose the truth in Tulia, we should be overjoyed. But everyone who has been touched by this case knows that there are other Tulias out there and other mothers like Mattie who also want their children to come home. And it's for their sake--ultimately, for all our sake--that the direction of the senseless drug war needs to be stopped in its tracks.

Silja J.A. Talvi writes on prison and criminal justice issues for In These Times, the Christian Science Monitor, The Nation and other publications. Her work appears in the newly released anthology, "Prison Nation" (Routledge, 2003).