Million Settlement Ends Case of Tainted Texas Sting
New York Times
March 11, 2004
Five years after
46 people, almost all of them black, were arrested on fabricated
drug charges in Tulia, Tex., their ordeal will draw to a close
today with the announcement of a $5 million settlement in their
civil suit and the disbandment of a federally financed 26-county
narcotics task force responsible for the arrests.
The case attracted
national attention because the number of people charged literally
decimated the small town's black population. It also gained notice
because the arrests were entirely based on the work of an undercover
narcotics agent who has been accused of racism and perjury. Gov.
Rick Perry of Texas pardoned the Tulia defendants in August, after
a court hearing last March exonerated them.
"This is undoubtedly
that last major chapter in the Tulia story, and this will conclude
the efforts of people in Tulia to get some compensation and justice,"
said Jeff Blackburn, a lawyer in Amarillo who represented the
people arrested five years ago in the civil suit. "With the
abolition of the task force, it completely closes the circle on
what was done."
Mr. Blackburn added
that the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force failed
adequately to supervise the agent, Tom Coleman, in its eagerness
to win battles in the war on drugs.
Tulia is a poor town
of 5,000 people between Amarillo and Lubbock. The $5 million will
be divided among 45 former defendants based on a formula that
will take account of whether they served time in prison and how
long. One defendant has since died.
The settlement will
be paid by the City of Amarillo, which had a leading role in running
the task force. Marcus W. Norris, the city attorney, said many
drug task forces in Texas were poorly organized and governed.
That led, he said, to poor supervision of Mr. Coleman in Tulia,
a lack of accountability and catastrophic misjudgments.
"There's a lesson
here," Mr. Norris said, "that cities should be very
careful about these alliances."
Mr. Coleman, who
was named Texas Lawman of the Year in 1999 for his work in Tulia,
will go on trial on perjury charges in May. He has pleaded not
guilty. Jon Mark Hogg, a lawyer for Mr. Coleman, declined to comment
on the civil settlement.
At a hearing last
year in Tulia, Mr. Coleman testified that although most of the
drug transactions he swore to were in public places and that he
did not wear a recording device, arrange for video surveillance,
ask anyone to observe the deals or fingerprint the plastic bags
containing the drugs.
Instead, he said, he jotted down information on his leg. No drugs,
weapons or large sums of cash were found in the mass arrest in
Mr. Coleman conceded
that he frequently used a racial epithet, but he denied that he
was a racist.
Judge Ron Chapman,
who presided over the hearing, found that Mr. Coleman had committed
Judge Chapman wrote
that Mr. Coleman was "the most devious, nonresponsive law
enforcement witness this court has witnessed in 25 years on the
bench in Texas."
Tonya White was among
those arrested in 1999. She was able to refute Mr. Coleman's charge
that she sold cocaine to him by producing bank records showing
she was 300 miles away, in Oklahoma City, at the time. She said
the most important aspect of the settlement was disbanding the
"I'm glad they
can't do this to anyone else," she said.
Swisher County, of which Tulia is the seat, was also a member
of the task force but continues to deny any liability in the case.
"We have stated
for the last five years that we don't think there was any wrongdoing
in this case," said Judge Harold Keeter of Swisher County.
But he suggested that the county might be prepared to make a contribution
to the settlement.
Mr. Coleman was
supervised by two task force officials who were also members of
the Amarillo Police Department, Lt. Michael Amos and Sgt. Jerry
Massengill. As part of the settlement, Mr. Norris said, they will
take early retirement.
"They were good
officers," Mr. Norris said. "They exercised poor judgment
in this case."
Lieutenant Amos declined
to comment on that assertion. He said he had been planning to
retire this year, anyway. Sergeant Massengill said he had no comment.
Mr. Norris noted
that Mr. Coleman was not employed by the Amarillo Police Department
and did not meet its standards.
Vanita Gupta, a lawyer
with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which also
represents the plaintiffs along with the Washington firm of Hogan
& Hartson, said it was a mistake to focus only on Mr. Coleman's
"The task force
is ultimately culpable for what happened in Tulia," Ms. Gupta
said. "They hired, supervised and sponsored Tom Coleman's
activity in the 18 months he was operating there."
"It's not that
Tom Coleman was simply a rogue officer," Ms Gupta added.
"The problem is that federally funded narcotics task forces
operate nationwide as rogue task forces because they are utterly
unaccountable to any oversight mechanism."
Mr. Blackburn said
the settlement had the potential to draw attention to the work
of similar task forces.
"I am really
hopeful that this will send a shock wave to Austin," Mr.
Blackburn said, "and that it will result in a complete systematic
overhaul of narcotics enforcement in Texas."