Is justice delayed better than none at all?
On a July morning in 1999, 46 peopleincluding more than 10 percent of the black population and a handful of whites in our tiny town of Tulia, Texaswere 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."