In everyday usage, "to decimate" means to wipe out, to cause great damage to, to destroy a large number of the enemy. Literally, it means to kill, destroy, or eliminate one out of ten. Either sense of the word is appropriate in describing what drug-fighting sheriff, a gung-ho prosecutor, a shady undercover cop, and the good jurors of Swisher County, Texas, did to the small African-American community in the town of Tulia.
In July 1999, after an 18-month undercover investigation by a lone undercover deputy, Tom Coleman, police swept down on Tulia with indictments for 46 "known drug dealers," 40 of whom were black. Such numbers may seem unremarkable in Houston's 4th Ward, inner city Dallas, or other large cities where such sweeps are common. But Tulia, located in the vast flatness of the Texas Panhandle south of Amarillo, has a population of 4700, including 232 black residents.
When the dust settled after the 1999 arrests, 17% of Tulia's black community was under indictment for felony drug distribution charges. They have been leaving for long stays in the Texas prison system ever since. Swisher County juries convicted and sentenced young first-time offenders eligible for probation to 20 and 25-year sentences. One man with a prior conviction got 90 years. But the hardest hit of all was William Cash Love, a white man who fathered a child with a local black woman. On the basis of a previous drug conviction and finding him guilty of making several drug deliveries -- the largest being an ounce of crack -- jurors gave Love a 435-year sentence. That is not a typo.
According to the Texas American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which last Friday filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against Swisher County law enforcement officials, what happened in Tulia is an egregious example of racially biased policing.
"Tulia is the latest horror story in the US war on drugs," Texas ACLU Executive Director Will Harrell told DRCNet. Clearly outraged, Harrell didn't mince words. "People need to think about the Geneva conventions, which make genocide a prohibited act. Tulia shows once again that it is a policy and practice of US law enforcement in waging their war on drugs."
"In one operation on one day, local law enforcement, with funds from the DEA, savaged the African-American community in Tulia, tearing parents away from their children and leaving 35 war orphans," added Harrell, referring to children who had at least one parent jailed.
The Amarillo branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) agreed, accusing the sheriff of targeting blacks in the investigation. On Tuesday, Amarillo NAACP president Alphonso Vaughn told a rally in support of Tulia's black residents that the local chapter will ask the national NAACP leadership to let it join in the lawsuit, the Amarillo Globe-News reported.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Yul Bryant, who was held in jail for seven months on cocaine distribution charges. Those charges were eventually dropped after undercover deputy Coleman admitted he wasn't "100% sure" he had actually bought cocaine from Bryant. Bryant was more fortunate than Billy Wafer, who, according to the ACLU's Harrell, will soon become a co-plaintiff in Bryant's lawsuit. Wafer also spent months in jail before questions about informer Coleman's credibility got him released pending trial.
Even Wafer's small victory in temporarily regaining his freedom reveals a disturbing picture of Swisher County justice. Wafer had six months left to go on a 10-year probation for marijuana possession when he was arrested and jailed for arranging the sale of an eightball (3.5 grams) of cocaine. At a probation revocation hearing, Deputy Coleman testified he had met Bryant at a convenience store to do the deal, but Wafer had a rock solid alibi: He was at work, and he had timecards and his boss's supporting testimony to back him up.
State District Judge Edward Self rejected Coleman's testimony, declined to revoke Wafer's probation, and ordered him released pending trial. But although Coleman's discredited story was the only evidence against Wafer, District Attorney McEachern did not move to drop the charges, nor did Judge Self order them dismissed. Instead, McEachern offered to let Wafer plead to a reduced charge with no jail time.
Wafer declined the offer because he is innocent and "I want the justice system to work," he told the Houston Chronicle. He instead filed a criminal perjury complaint against Coleman.
The cases of Bryant and Wafer only hint at the problems with Deputy Coleman's credibility. He won the Texas Lawman of the Year award for his work in Tulia, but that was before his own checkered past became widely known.
The 41-year-old son of a Texas Ranger, Coleman had abandoned previous deputy positions in Pecos and Cochran counties. In both cases, according to recent Texas press accounts, he left without notice and without paying outstanding debts. In 1996, Cochran County Sheriff Ken Burke wrote to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement to notify the agency that Coleman had quit in the middle of his shift and left debts totaling $6,931.82.
"It is my opinion that an officer should uphold the law. Mr. Coleman should not be in law enforcement," wrote the sheriff.
Unable to collect, after two years Cochran County issued a theft warrant against Coleman. Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart booked his employee but did not jail him and gave him a week to take care of the matter. Coleman did not do so, and in August of 1998 was suspended from his undercover duties until he made restitution. On August 17th, 1998, Coleman paid up, the charges were dropped, and the undercover work resumed.
Testifying in Wafer's probation revocation hearing, Coleman denied having an arrest record. That testimony is the basis for Wafer's perjury complaint.
A family court investigator who interviewed family friends, relatives, and coworkers during Coleman's 1994 divorce turned up even more damaging information about the deputy. In papers filed in Pecos County Court, several interviewees used terms such as "paranoid," "a compulsive liar," and "unstable" to describe him. One former co-worker in the Pecos County Sheriff's Office said, "Tom can lie to you when the truth would sound better."
In the Tulia cases, Coleman's word was critical, because none of the supposed undercover buys were recorded, nor were there any witnesses. And, Coleman testified, he did not even keep permanent notes, instead scribbling information on his leg or stomach.
Coleman's testimony and affidavits contributed to the severity of many of the sentences. He swore that many of the alleged buys took place within 1,000 feet of a school zone, thus making the defendants vulnerable to a life sentence under Texas law. Again, there was no corroborating evidence.
That did not bother Swisher County juries, which convicted 11 people on Coleman's testimony alone. With the exception of three people who have so far avoided arrest and Wafer, who awaits trial, the remaining defendants pled guilty after seeing their friends and relatives sentenced to decades, sometimes centuries, in prison by hard-nosed jurors.
Neither were the jurors bothered by another oddity in the cases. Although by all accounts, crack was the drug of choice among the young and poor in Tulia, almost every defendant was arrested for delivering powder cocaine.
Wafer, for one, is suspicious about the powder cocaine. Those who were arrested, he told the Houston Chronicle, did not have the money to buy $200 eightballs of powder; rocks of crack costing about $20 were more in their league.
Wafer isn't the only one wondering. Plainview attorney Brent Hamilton, who was appointed to represent some of the defendants, told the Chronicle, "What I want to know is where that powder cocaine came from, because it sure didn't come from my clients."
Hamilton has obtained a court order to have the powder cocaine evidence tested to see if it came from a single source, the clear implication being that Coleman himself provided the cocaine, cut if with other substances, and used it to beef up the charges. The tests have not yet been completed.
For the ACLU's Harrell, the last week's lawsuit is only the beginning. "Within the next month," he told DRCNet, "everyone indicted will be a plaintiff in the lawsuit. And we will soon file a second civil rights lawsuit on behalf of the families who have suffered a direct emotional and financial impact."
"We're going after individuals and institutions for conspiracy to violate constitutional rights, particularly the 4th Amendment's guarantee of freedom from unreasonable search and seizure and the equal protection provisions of the 14th Amendment," explained Harrell.
And, he added, "We have relayed information to the US Department of Justice asking them to investigate and file federal criminal charges against Swisher County law enforcement. On October 13th, we will file a complaint with Justice asking them to defund the Panhandle Narcotics Task Force."
Task force funds, some of which come from the DEA, paid for Coleman's investigations.
But for Harrell and the black community in Tulia alike, the ultimate goal is freedom for those sitting behind prison bars. Said Harrell, "We are now coordinating the appeals process and gearing up a habeas corpus campaign asking for retrials. But this is ultimately a political problem and will require a political solution."
"We have to turn up the heat and come up with enough smoking guns to make this a clemency issue," said Harrell.
That is beginning to happen. The story got little attention until a groundbreaking investigative report by the Texas Observer's Nate Blakeslee exposed the stink of racism and injustice. But with defense lawyers, local residents, and the Amarillo NAACP raising a storm of protest, the case has gradually made the media radar, at least in Texas. Now, with the ACLU lawsuit and publicity generated by the Texas Journey for Justice, the tale of Tulia appears to be reaching critical mass.
Tulia residents did their part in the campaign last week when they journeyed to Austin, the state capital, to meet and rally with the Texas Journey for Justice, a 200-member caravan organized by the Drug Policy Foundation of Texas. (See related story below.)
Anita Barrow, whose twin sons are each serving 20 years as a result of the bust, was one of the women who made the daylong journey by bus. She came, she told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, because there is no justice for poor minorities in Tulia. "If you don't got money, or if you're not white, or if you're white but you hang around with blacks, it's the same thing," Barrow said. "No justice."
Harrell agrees. "This is an obvious injustice," he fumed.
Attorney Hamilton elaborated. "This case has got to be one of the most outrageous cases I have ever seen," he said. "What happened in Tulia is a real abomination and a real injustice that has done incredible damage to a lot of human beings. They deserve a real day in court."
Mattie White, a Tulia grandmother who saw three children, a niece, and a son-in-law taken away, told the Houston Chronicle she just wants her family back. "It's real lonesome now. It's not the same as having those kids around."
Nate Blakeslee's piece can be found online at http://www.auschron.com/issues/dispatch/2000-07-28/pols_feature3.html.