Some Justice in Tulia

Thanks to the wonders of the human memory -- and computerized banking -- Tonya White is a free woman. One of 46 defendants charged in the infamous Tulia drug bust, White had faced a five-to-99-year prison sentence on felony drug charges until April 12, when the state moved to dismiss the case after bank records proved her innocence. "It's just a relief," she said. "Thank God for my lawyers, who trusted me and believed in me."

White's accuser, drug agent Tom Coleman (who is white), had claimed that on Oct. 9, 1998, she had sold him cocaine within 1,000 feet of a Tulia playground. At the time of the alleged transaction, however, White was living in Oklahoma City, as her bank records confirmed in court. Last winter, she had discussed the documents with her attorney, Jeff Blackburn, an Amarillo civil rights lawyer who founded the Tulia Legal Defense Project to represent defendants standing trial. But nothing noteworthy about the records came up until an early April phone conversation between White's mother and Blackburn's legal assistant. Mattie White suggested that her daughter could have received a worker's compensation check in October 1998, and had probably deposited it around the ninth. After four years, Tonya couldn't remember where her old bank was located, so Blackburn immediately dispatched an investigator to Oklahoma City to canvass the city's banks. "The fourth was the charm," he said.

For Blackburn, who represented White pro bono, her acquittal represents a critical turning point in unraveling the facts of the Tulia bust -- in which at least 37 defendants were black -- and the veracity of Coleman's claims. A narcotics agent who did not conduct video or audio surveillance, Coleman served as the sole witness in most cases. Furthermore, very little corroborating evidence was introduced during the trials. Partly due to public outrage and cries of racial profiling, the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the Tulia cases.

District Attorney Terry McEachern, who oversees Swisher and Hale counties and based his prosecutions on Coleman's work, maintains that White's acquittal is an anomaly. "There was some inconsistency, in this case only," he said. "I stand by the other convictions, and what the juries did." McEachern believes the banking records "did not show conclusively" that White was innocent, but raised "enough doubt in my mind" for him to file the motion to dismiss the charges. "She is innocent because she is proven to be innocent under our laws."

A Tulia native, White says she never met Coleman until last January, when they both appeared in the same courtroom at her first pretrial. To this day, she doesn't even know how he found her name. She had moved from Oklahoma to her current place of residence, Shreveport, and didn't discover that she was a Tulia suspect until 1999, when she tried to return to the small West Texas town for a family reunion. Mattie White had seen Tonya's picture hanging in the sheriff's office, and told her daughter not to come home.

White did not turn herself into authorities until November 2001, but denies the "woman on the run" moniker bestowed upon her by the news wires. "I wasn't really on the run," she said. "They could have looked up my Social Security number. If they wanted me, they could have gotten me." In December 2001, she passed a lie detector test "with flying colors," but the months preceding her trial were stressful. Her "nerves" caused some of her hair to fall out, she said, and at night, she would hear noises and think that law enforcement was coming to get her.

Although now she may finally get some sleep, the specter of Tulia continues to haunt White. Relatives rounded up in the bust include her sister, serving a 25-year prison sentence; her younger brother, sentenced to 60 years on just one count (he's waiting to be tried on six others, White says); her uncle, 18 years; two twin cousins, and her nephew's father -- recipient of a 439-year sentence. Another of White's brothers served two years, and was released this winter. "Everyone in [prison], I knew," she said. "Everybody knew everybody." She hopes to help other defendants clear their names, she said.

On July 23, the Tulia Legal Defense Project will head back to the courtroom to represent 22-year-old Zuri Bossett, the final defendant to take the stand. Coleman claims Bossett delivered cocaine to him in 1998, when she was just 18; Blackburn says the charges against her are thinner than those against White. Already, the team has spent $25,000 out of pocket defending White and Bossett. "You've got to do something," Blackburn says.

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