38 Drug Cases Thrown Into Question

Former undercover investigator Tom Coleman arrives at the Swisher County courthouseto to testify during the evidentiary hearing Thursday, March 20, 2003, in Tulia, Texas. AP

Prosecutors said 38 defendants arrested in a controversial 1999 drug sting won't be retried after a judge ruled their convictions were based on questionable testimony from a single undercover agent accused of racial prejudice.

Hours after retired state district Judge Ron Chapman urged the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to grant new trials for the defendants, a special prosecutor vowed Tuesday to dismiss the cases if they are sent back.

"We'll dismiss them," said Rod Hobson, a special prosecutor assigned to the case that has spurred probes by the Justice Department and the Texas attorney general. "It would be foolish for us to go forward."

CBS News Correspondent Bob McNamara reports it could take months before the appeals court decides how to deal with the Tulia convictions. But until then, supporters of those wrongly convicted will embrace this victory - holding to the hopes that have bought them this far.

"We've been praying for this for four years, and we haven't ever given up," said Mattie White, who had four children arrested by Coleman. "This man he just, he was just a bad man, he was just really a bad person."

She'll get no argument on that from Billy Wafer, a local resident who was arrested by Coleman.

"I ain't an angel but I've never sold drugs," says Wafer, who was later released when it was suspected he had been framed.

Another man who was arrested and later released can't help thinking about what he missed while behind bars.

Vincent McCrary did 3 years behind bars before he was let go.

"I missed a whole lot of my kids and my family life," says Vincent McCrary, who was in prison for three years before being freed. "That's something I can't replace."

The cases involved an 18-month undercover investigation by former sheriff's officer Tom Coleman. Most of the defendants he arrested in this predominantly white Texas Panhandle town were black.

The arrests on charges of possessing and selling cocaine hinged on Coleman's testimony. He worked alone and used no audio or video surveillance.

But no drugs were ever found during the arrests and little or no corroborating evidence was introduced at trial. The Texas American Civil Liberties Union suggested discrimination was behind the arrests and that they were intended to eliminate Tulia's black population.

Coleman - who is white - has denied having had any racial motives, or being a racist. But as part of the investigation, authorities talked to Coleman's ex-wife, who swore out an affidavit claiming that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

The appeals court had ordered a hearing to review evidence against four of the defendants to determine if the men were convicted solely on Coleman's word and whether prosecutors failed to turn over information from Coleman's background that may have cast doubt on his testimony.

"It is stipulated by all parties and approved by the court that Tom Coleman is simply not a credible witness under oath," Chapman announced in the Swisher County courtroom Tuesday.

Jeff Blackburn, an attorney representing two of the four men whose arrests were examined in the hearing, predicted Chapman's recommendation would carry considerable weight with the appellate court.

"This is wonderful news, though nothing is final as of yet... We are very pleased that Tom Coleman's word can't be the basis of any standing conviction," said Vanita Gupta, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. "This is a lesson for how the war on drugs does not work in this country."

Swisher County commissioners unanimously approved a $250,000 payment to the defendants. The amount will be distributed based on how much time each person was imprisoned, defense attorney Ted Killory told the commissioners.

In all, 46 people were arrested, 39 of them black, during Coleman's undercover sting. Thirteen are still in prison and others served time or were sentenced to probation.

Coleman was the main witness during the hearing, and testified that he stood by his investigations. He blamed work-related problems on marital trouble and denied allegations that he was a thief and a liar, but contradicted himself several times on the stand.

Coleman came to Tulia, midway between Lubbock and Amarillo, in late 1997. He had been a Pecos police officer and Cochran County sheriff's deputy, though he left that job in 1996 after he was charged with theft and abuse of power; those charges were dropped after he paid nearly $7,000 in restitution.

He worked as a welder before being hired in Tulia in 1998 as an undercover drug agent for the Swisher County Sheriff's Department.

On July 23, 1999, the suspects Coleman identified were pulled from their beds and paraded, still in their nightclothes, across the courthouse lawn in front of television cameras. The Texas Narcotic Control Program later named Coleman "Outstanding Lawman of the Year."

One of his supervisors with the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force, Lt. Michael Amos, testified that Coleman had "an exceptional talent at being an undercover officer."

But Amos acknowledged that Coleman's previous employers had told his staff Coleman was unprofessional, needed constant supervision, was a discipline problem and tended to run to his mother for help.

Coleman no longer works in law enforcement or for Swisher County.

Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart said that the judge's recommendation helps bring closure to years of dispute. It was still unknown when the appeals court will issue its ruling on Chapman's recommendation.

"The agreement reached among the parties involved is not about guilt or innocence but is intended to end the controversy that has surrounded these cases," said Stewart.

  • Francie Grace

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