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Allegations of Justice Denied in Tulia, Texas

June 20, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Now, allegations of justice denied in Tulia, Texas. Jeffrey Kaye of KCET-Los Angeles has our report.

JEFFREY KAYE: This week, for the first time in three- and-a-half years, Freddie Brookins, Jr., got to play ball with his daughter, Serena, visit with his father, Freddie, sr., and rejoin his wife, Terry.

FREDDIE BROOKINS, JR.: Well, I’ve lost a lot. You know, I’ve lost all, you know, the times I seen my kids grow up. I lost all that. That means… that means a lot to me, you know. And I would have been finished with school by now.

JEFFREY KAYE: Brookins was one of 12 people released on bond from prison on Monday in the Texas panhandle town of Tulia. All had been convicted on cocaine charges in a case that brought international attention and became a cause celebre for civil rights groups.

SPOKESPERSON: Make it worthwhile.

JEFFREY KAYE: Vanita Gupta of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund coordinated the legal assault that resulted in the releases.

VANITA GUPTA: I think the case of Tulia, Texas, presents the most egregious case that we’ve seen in recent times. I think it’s… it’s unheard of. You know, we hadn’t heard of a case where one man had been able to bring down an entire community based on his word alone with no corroborating evidence.

JEFFREY KAYE: The one man was Tom Coleman, an undercover cop who claimed to have penetrated a cocaine-selling ring. On his word, in a July 1999 pre-dawn raid, police rounded up and arrested 46 people, 39 of them black. The arrests accounted for 9 percent of Tulia’s small black population.

FREDDIE BROOKINS, JR.: You take people off to jail half-dressed. That wasn’t right.

JEFFREY KAYE: Brookins was one of 38 people who were eventually convicted. He got 20 years in prison. Other sentences ranged up to 99 years.

VANITA GUPTA: The only evidence that could link our clients to those drugs was the word of Tom Coleman.

JEFFREY KAYE: Was there corroborating evidence?

VANITA GUPTA: There was no corroborating evidence.

JEFFREY KAYE: Were there corroborating witnesses?

VANITA GUPTA: There were no corroborating witnesses.

JEFFREY KAYE: Was there surveillance tape?

VANITA GUPTA: There was no surveillance. There was no audiotape, there was no wiretap, there was no… there was nothing that you would tend to see in a properly conducted drug sting. There was no corroboration. The only evidence that the state had against any of these defendants was Tom Coleman’s word.

JEFFREY KAYE: Four of Mattie White’s were charged in the case. Among them, Kizzie White, who was locked up for nearly four years.

KIZZIE WHITE: I have two children, and I missed out on a lot of school activities, some of their baseball games.

JEFFREY KAYE: It was the case against Kizzie’s sister Tanya that led to the unraveling of the prosecution.

SPOKESPERSON: Tanya, she was in Oklahoma City at the time that it all happened for her.

SPOKESMAN: After Tanya White’s case, we had direct graphic evidence that the guy was framing people. Hi, woody. Jeff Blackburn.

JEFFREY KAYE: Amarillo lawyer Jeff Blackburn was asked to look into the case. He discovered something was very wrong.

JEFF BLACKBURN: We had a bank record that we dug up in the basement of a bank in Oklahoma City. This record showed that on the day that Coleman said Tanya White was seeing him drugs in Tulia, she was taking $8 off the top of a workmen’s compensation check in Oklahoma City hours and hours away. Impossible to be two places at one time. Coleman’s a liar.

JEFFREY KAYE: More investigation further undermined Coleman’s credibility. During the Swisher County court proceedings, Coleman had not only lied about the facts in this case, but had also failed to disclose his tarnished record as a police officer, an arrest for theft, bad debts, and his use of racial slurs.

VANITA GUPTA: What happened in these cases was there was a presumption of guilt based on the color of skin of these defendants.

FREDDIE BROOKINS, SR.: I would say ethnic cleansing. It wasn’t about drugs.

JEFFREY KAYE: Ethnic cleansing?

FREDDIE BROOKINS, SR.: Exactly. They’re getting rid of a group of people: Blacks.

JEFFREY KAYE: Press attention focused on Tulia as a community bypassed by the civil rights movement, even though the economically depressed town of about 5,000 was one of the first cities in Texas to integrate its schools. Still, blacks and a much larger population of Latinos for the most part live on the poorer side of town, where many of the homes are dilapidated and roads unpaved. In another section, there’s a suburban tract of nicer houses and watered lawns where the more well-to-do whites live. The scandal has left a deep scar in Tulia. Many blacks feel they can’t get a fair shake in the job market or the courtroom, and white residents say they’ve been unfairly depicted as racists.

THERESA HILL: As a community, to be given a black eye like we’ve been, I just don’t think it’s fair.

JEFFREY KAYE: Tulia resident Theresa Hill, a mother of two, says the community has a drug problem, not a race problem.

THERESA HILL: I don’t think anyone in Tulia is prejudiced against any specific ethnic group. I think they’re prejudiced against drugs, and when they told us – meaning the district attorneys or anybody else – told us they were doing drugs, then we wanted to prosecute. We didn’t want drugs.

JEFFREY KAYE: Other residents believe those convicted were targeted for only one reason: They were guilty. Boyd Vaughn is the Tulia mayor.

BOYD VAUGHN, Mayor, Tulia: I’m not saying that everybody was hardened criminals, but I think that they sold drugs. They wasn’t bad people, but you know, profit motive does a lot of things, and I think that a guy paid good money for, for something that they provided.

JEFFREY KAYE: And that guy, Tom Coleman, came to the courtroom with appeared to be impeccable credentials.

SPOKESMAN: God is so good.

JEFFREY KAYE: Pastor William Guenther of the First Assembly of God Church was the foreman of a jury that delivered a 25-year prison sentence on Coleman’s testimony.

PASTOR WILLIAM GUENTHER: We had no reason to disbelieve what Officer Coleman said. His supervisors from the drug task force told us that, what he did, everything he did was according to procedure.

JEFFREY KAYE: During the trials, not only did Coleman’s superiors vouch for him, the county sheriff and the district attorney misrepresented Coleman’s past. Neither the DA nor the sheriff would agree to be interviewed. Lawyer Blackburn says the problem was bigger than one police officer.

JEFF BLACKBURN: You have a rogue cop. You have a cop with a past. That past should have been disclosed to these defense lawyers for starters, never was. In fact, it was actively suppressed by the state, by its prosecutor. That was problem number one. Problem number two: You had really bad defense lawyers, frankly.

JEFFREY KAYE: Brookins says his court appointed lawyer didn’t adequately represent him. Did your lawyer bring in other witnesses?

FREDDIE BROOKINS, JR.: No, sir.

JEFFREY KAYE: Did he do any investigation of his own?

FREDDIE BROOKINS, JR.: I don’t believe he did.

VANITA GUPTA: Texas does not have an institutional defender system, any public defender system. So what happened in Tulia was that you had individuals, solo practitioners and court- appointed lawyers, representing, representing their client. These lawyers depend on… they get their bread and butter from these court appointments. They need to be in the good graces of the judge in these towns. That is why… that explains in part why there was little to no adversarial process.

JEFFREY KAYE: Advocates for the defendants hope this case will lead to real reforms and a change of attitude among police and prosecutors.

SPOKESMAN: Even with the things that they say, like, “well, we know who the good people are and we know who the bad people are, and it’s only the bad people that ought to be put away.” They don’t realize how really un-American that concept is — that the more American perspective, the more mainstream perspective would be to say, “We don’t put people away unless there’s solid proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

JEFFREY KAYE: The freed defendants want to get on with their lives.

KIZZIE WHITE: I’m going to just build the bond back with my kids and put it all, I want to put it all behind me and just live my life.

FREDDIE BROOKINS, JR.: Now I have to start from nothing. Three-and-a-half years later, now I have to start.

JEFFREY KAYE: Play catch-up.

FREEDIE BROOKINS, JR.: Yes, sir. Try to catch up.

JEFFREY KAYE: The Tulia defendants are also seeking exoneration. Technically, the drug charges are still hanging over their heads. They want all charges dismissed by the courts or a full pardon signed by the governor.