The Common Good
November-December 2003

A Lasting Sting

by Alan Bean | November-December 2003

Is justice delayed better than none at all?

Is justice delayed better than none at all?

On a July morning in 1999, 46 people—including more than 10 percent of the black population and a handful of whites in our tiny town of Tulia, Texas—were locked up for alleged drug offenses on the uncorroborated word of undercover agent Tom Coleman. Two weeks after the sting, a local editorial denounced the defendants as "scumbags." Offended by this rush to judgment, I shared my concerns with a Sunday school class. "They are scumbags," I was informed, "and they're all going to prison." When I learned that Coleman had been arrested on theft charges in the middle of his 18-month operation, my concern deepened.

Days after one of those arrested, an aging hog farmer, was sentenced to 90 years, a ragtag collection of defendants, their families, and a handful of supporters from Tulia's white community came together. Calling ourselves Friends of Justice, we worked to expose a bogus law-enforcement operation. By fall 2000, a civil rights suit had been filed and the Department of Justice was conducting a full-scale investigation.

When the story went national, 500 other Tulia citizens responded to the negative publicity by crowding into the Swisher County Memorial Building for a rally in support of law enforcement officials. Most local support for the drug sting never flagged, even though no drugs or other evidence were found in any of the arrests, and some defendants had proof that they weren't even in town when they supposedly bought or sold drugs. A schoolteacher captured the local mood perfectly: "Any attack on the undercover investigation, the officers involved, and subsequent trials" was "an attack on our entire community."

"I have never seen a community rally and get this strong," Church of Christ pastor Trey Morgan told a reporter. A Pentecostal minister agreed. If the bleeding hearts in New York and Los Angeles wanted to coddle their drug dealers, that was their business.

TULIA'S WHITE religious community was particularly stung by accusations of racism. It wasn't the color of their skin that damned the defendants, they argued in a series of letters to the editor, it was the content of their character. "I'll admit to being prejudiced," a Church of Christ deacon boasted. "I'm prejudiced against people who refuse to work because they choose to live on welfare."

This March, after a week of evidentiary hearings, prosecutors finally admitted that Coleman was simply not credible under oath. Texas legislators passed an emergency bill freeing everyone who had been convicted on the basis of Coleman's uncorroborated word, and Gov. Rick Perry issued full pardons. Media emphasis shifted from racial prejudice to judicial fairness, and, like Rip Van Winkle, Tulia's religious establishment awakened to a radically changed world.

A Tulia grand jury has indicted Tom Coleman on three counts of aggravated perjury. County officials have refused to help District Attorney Terry McEachern fend off an ethics inquiry.

Perhaps more significant, funding for Tulia's drug rehabilitation center has been doubled. An ad hoc committee (including several black citizens impacted by the drug sting) is working on a new economic development strategy. The Tulia ministerial association is encouraging local businesses to hire sting defendants, and a multiracial citizens review committee has been established to hear complaints of official misconduct.

Civil suits have been filed against a long list of local officials, so we may wait forever for official acknowledgment of wrongdoing. But these other recent developments do signify a change of heart in the community. For the moment, that will suffice. —Alan Bean

Alan Bean is the director of Friends of Justice, a Tulia-based criminal justice reform organization. He is writing Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas, an insider's account of the aftermath of the Coleman sting.

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