Forty-six people, 39 of them black, were hauled off - half-dressed and unkempt as one tends to be at 4am - to the local jail. They were charged with numerous drug-dealing offences, most involving dealing in expensive powdered cocaine. Curiously for such a huge drugs bust, no cash, drugs or firearms were uncovered by the ski-masked cops who turned over the defendants' modest homes and shacks.
One week later, the local newspaper, the Tulia Sentinel , celebrated the arrests with unambiguity: "We do not like these scumbags doing business in our town. They are a cancer in our community, it's time to give them a major dose of chemotherapy behind bars. The jury in the trials comprised all white bar one man Tulia residents, all of whom presumably read the Tulia Sentinel.
Everything was now set for the appearance of the hero of the hour - Tom Coleman, the undercover narcotics cops who ran the whole sting operation single-handedly. Tom Coleman has an accent that cuts rawhide; he walks tall and with menace. His stubble hair crowns a bull neck that looks out of place on his trim and well-kept figure. Of course, he wears a black cowboy hat and boots and is as Texan as a lasso.
To run the sting, he posed as T. Dawson, a pony-tailed white-trash biker with a girlfriend whose sexual appetite could only be satisfied with the help of liberal quantities of powdered cocaine. His clever excuse for not taking it himself in front of the people who allegedly sold it to him was that he was on probation and liable to spot-urine tests by the police. Coleman used an unusual modus operandi for an undercover narcotics cop.
He worked without a partner, without a wire, without video surveillance, without fingerprint evidence and without a notebook. He wrote notes on his leg.
The entire weight of evidence against all the suspects was based on his honesty and integrity, and the bags of cocaine known on the street as "eightballs" he allegedly bought from the defendants. In court, Coleman was regarded as the cavalry who rescued the town from drugs hell. Others would hold their hands by their crotch and give me a secret thumbs up and a wink. The first prison sentences handed down were so punishing that many defendants knowing only too well what happened to a black drug dealer in a white Texan town, changed their pleas and bargained for the best they could get.
The judge handed out a total of years in prison and years on probation. Tulia rejoiced, Coleman's back was sore from the slaps, and he was nominated and awarded Texas Lawman of the Year. It turned out that the judge in all the cases had refused to allow the defence lawyers to inform the jury that Coleman's work record was, in his own words "a little spotty". He was, in fact, what Texans call a "Gypsy Cop", freelance paladins who ride from county to county taking short-term contracts with small impoverished sheriffs' departments, then moving on and out.
They are men with no real community loyalty, poorly paid bottom feeders in the deep sea of law enforcement in Texas. The sheriff then sent a note to the state's main employment office for lawmen in Texas reporting unequivocally: "It is in my opinion that an officer should uphold the law.
Mr Coleman should not be in law enforcement if he is going to do people the way he did this town.
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But when the Sheriff of Tulia hired Coleman, he did not bother to check on that less than glowing recommendation. No, I didn't ask if there were any notes on his file. So a jury, ignorant of Coleman's background, overheated by the prejudices of a local newspaper editor, and dazzled by Coleman's undoubted glamour he is the son of a Texas Ranger, lawmen with semi-divine status in the state , slammed the door on impartiality and doubt.
Take Billy Sue Gayler. As we walk round the neat and clean everything in the white parts of Tulia is neat and clean museum she runs in town, she quietly and convincingly parades her colour blindness. I am known and liked over there. And yet and yet. Billy Sue Gayler sat on one of the juries yet couldn't even remember the name of the young black man she sentenced to 53 years in jail in Texas juries often set the sentence, too.
When I ask her about the case I am keen to understand why she believed Coleman but not the young black defendant.
His is not an easy job, but he did walk the walk and talk the talk. Shouldn't lawmen be very close to the angels? So I took it that he was good, the right one for this job. But the defendant was not accorded the same degree of impartial trust. He had pleaded not guilty, yet something in Billy Sue's breast seemed to demand some kind of public abasement from him despite his plea of innocence.
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I waited for him to turn to me and say, to all of us, and say, 'I'm sorry that this has happened', or to say, 'I want to go back and get some education, I want to do better'. I never heard one bit of encouragement from that young man and that young man was old enough to know that he should be running to do better. But how on earth could this defendant perform such a public mea culpa if he had pleaded not guilty?
Frankly, I think the people in a community like Tulia are so racist that they don't know they're racist. They don't need conspiracies or closed doors to take decisions to go after black people because this is how things have been done for a long time. There's a lot of accidental racism involved, much of it racial profiling. These taskforces were created under president Ronald Reagan and are mainly federally funded.alternativelandscapes.ca/modules/4501.php
The rogue cop of Tulia, Texas
Their purpose is to help small impoverished towns such as Tulia deal with sophisticated big-city drug dealers who might invade the boonie communities of the South and South-West. But to requalify for the big federal grants, the taskforces need lots of arrests and convictions, and who easier than black labourers and sod-busters in tired agricultural communities like Tulia.
These are defendants who often cannot afford lawyers, who are often painfully inarticulate, and a few of whom, yes, just like the whites, smoke the odd crack cocaine pipe or spliff. You could buy half of Tulia for that kind of money. When I met Leroy he plea-bargained and got probation , he was doing his usual thing.
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Now I receive no welfare, I am without a job, I have nothing. Well not quite. Five of Coleman's cases have unravelled. Tania White faced a year prison sentence for selling Coleman cocaine. But there was a problem. Her lawyer, Jeff Blackburn, proved that she was hundreds of kilometres away at the time, in Oklahoma City cashing a cheque.
Case dismissed. I was right, she's lying," snorts Coleman. Coleman's official report had something scratched out. Kathryn Cooper. Joan Didion. Derrick Murphy. Sinead Fitzgibbon. Margot Lee Shetterly. Michael C. Kate Summerscale. Rod Nordland.
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