Dallas and Tulia

Over 70 pending drug cases and convictions have been dismissed or vacated in Dallas in the wake of a police scandal broken last month by The Dallas Morning News and WFAA television. The prosecutions all involved large undercover buys of cocaine or methamphetamine by the same team of officers, using the same confidential informant. Belated testing of evidence in one case revealed that the dope was phony, which led to more widespread testing and the startling revelation that half of all the cocaine seized by the Dallas Police Department last year was actually powdered gypsum. You know it as Sheetrock, but the cops apparently didn1t know it from shit. Or did they? The informant, who earned about $200,000 in fees for his services last year, told the News that he wasn1t the one to blame for the phony drugs, raising the possibility that the officers (two of whom have been suspended pending the outcome of an FBI investigation) were in on the bogus deals. Then, just when things were getting interesting, Whoops! the talkative informant found himself deported. It remains to be seen what effect that untimely development will have on the investigation.

Several of the defendants have already been deported as well, so their dismissals will come as little consolation. But at least the Dallas District Attorney, Bill Hill, had the good sense to throw out the prosecutions, rather than stick by the questionable evidence. In some instances, Hill had no choice but to drop the cases, thanks to a new law passed by the state legislature last session. In press reports, spokespersons for police and prosecutors have cited a new evidence corroboration law as one reason they went back and took a harder look at the evidence in these cases. Sponsored by Juan Hinojosa (D-McAllen), the new law was one of last session’s Tulia bills, conceived by the Texas ACLU and inspired by the Observer’s reporting on the Panhandle drug scandal of 1999-2000, a disaster which has some remarkable parallels to the current controversy. The new law prevents prosecutors from making cases based solely on evidence provided by a confidential informant. Several of the Dallas cases had no corroborating evidence (e.g. audio, video, eyewitnesses, etc.), hence they had to be thrown out, regardless of whether the dope was phony or not.

The Tulia cases were made by an undercover officer, not an informant, so the bill would not have applied in those cases. (The ACLU originally sought to have it apply to officers as well, and will likely come back to the lege with that change next session.) But the real difference between the Tulia and Dallas scandals has been the district attorneys involved. While Hill sought to come clean as soon as he saw the writing on the wall, Tulia D.A. Terry McEachern has stuck by his narc, Tom Coleman, despite the complete lack of corroboration of his testimony, the highly suspicious nature of the buys he made, and the seemingly endless cascade of unflattering revelations about his personal and professional past. To date there have been no reversed convictions or successful appeals in Tulia. Two outstanding indictments have yet to be prosecuted: They are Tanya White, set for trial on April 16, and Zuri Bossett, set for July 23. Both are represented by Amarillo, TX defense attorney Jeff Blackburn.

This article originally appeared in the Texas Observer.

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