Mattie White had all but given up hope that she would ever again be reunited with her two children sent to prison during an undercover drug operation since called into question.
"I thought, 'It's not going to ever happen.' I would go off and cry to myself," White said. Her children were among 46 arrested in 1999 in this small Panhandle town.
But over the past few months, White's hopes have risen as civil rights advocates decried the arrests as racially motivated and a judge recommended that the convictions be overturned.
Retired state District Judge Ron Chapman, of Dallas, is expected Monday to order the release of White's 27-year-old son, 26-year-old daughter and 10 others on personal recognizance bonds while their appeals are being heard.
Another defendant would be covered by the ruling, but won't be released because of charges in another county. A 14th defendant is not eligible for bond because his case is still pending on direct appeal.
The judge's expected ruling would mark a milestone in the case that has brought national attention to this community of 5,000 people. Several investigations have been launched.
"I'm so happy for them," said Billy Wafer, who was arrested during the busts but had an alibi that led to his case being dismissed. "It's been a long time coming but it's finally here."
The controversial busts were led by undercover agent Tom Coleman, who claimed he bought drugs from the defendants during an 18-month investigation in which he worked alone and used no audio or video surveillance.
No drugs were ever found during a total of 46 arrests and little or no corroborating evidence was introduced at trial. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, some of those arrested later produced time cards showing they were at work or bank records proving they were out of state at the time of the alleged drug sales.
Some suggested discrimination was behind the arrests. Coleman is white; of the 46 people arrested, 39 are black. According to advocacy groups who have adopted the case, it represented more than one of every ten black people in the town.
A total of 38 of the group arrested were convicted or accepted plea agreements out of fear of lengthy prison terms. Of the 38, 14 defendants remain in jail.
Last month, Chapman recommended throwing out the convictions. Coleman was indicted in April on three counts of aggravated perjury for allegedly lying during evidentiary hearings involving the case; he has maintained his innocence.
Chapman found fault with the district attorney and Coleman's supervisors in the Swisher County Sheriff's Department and the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force. His report called Coleman "the most devious, nonresponsive witness this court has witnessed in 25 years on the bench in Texas."
The Texas Attorney General's Office and the U.S. Justice Department have been investigating the case. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles also has the cases under review.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals still must rule on the Tulia defendants' case, which could take up to two years. Prosecutors have asked that the case be sent back to the local court so that it can be dismissed.
Gov. Rick Perry signed into law in early June legislation that allows those defendants still in jail to post bond. The law, narrowly tailored to apply to the Tulia case, won overwhelming approval in both legislative chambers.
Vanita Gupta, assistant counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and one of many attorneys involved in the cases, said she was "overjoyed and relieved" that the defendants who were "ripped from their families" finally will be free.
"It is incredible that all three branches of the Texas government have recognized the need for action to rectify the injustice that took place in Tulia," Gupta said. "But until these individuals receive full and complete relief, whether through a pardon or an overturning of their convictions, this matter is not resolved."
White, meanwhile, just hopes to be reunited with her two children still behind bars: Her son, Kareem White, sentenced to 60 years in prison, and her daughter Kizzie, sentenced to 25 years. A third child, Donnie White, was paroled in January 2002.