NOW with Bill Moyers

Transcript - Truth and Lies

BILL MOYERS: Tulia, Texas. Driving into this small, rural town of 5,000 in the Panhandle of Texas, you learn that good people live here. But one morning four years could have thought this to be the biggest nest of drug lords in the Lone Star State.


Police 1: Get out of the car.

Police 2: He's saying you've got the wrong man.

Arrested Man: You've got the wrong man. I'm trying to tell you you've got the wrong man.

BILL MOYERS: In a pre-dawn raid on July 23, 1999, law enforcement officers swooped down and arrested 46 people on drug charges. Most of them were black.

BOB HERBERT: The media was alerted in advance, including the local television stations. The people were roused from their beds early in the morning. Some were not allowed to get fully dressed. I mean it was calculated to humiliate them.

BILL MOYERS: The raid was big news in Texas, but not that many national journalists picked up on the story. One exception was journalist Bob Herbert. Over the coming months he would write column after column in the NEW YORK TIMES on what he called the "Tulia madness". A madness embodied by a single law enforcement officer.

BOB HERBERT: These arrests were based on an investigation that covered about 18 months by this so-called undercover officer. A guy named Tom Coleman. And-- as you looked more and more closely at this thing, it came to be clear that this was a bogus investigation.

BILL MOYERS: It turns out police recovered no evidence at the scene - no drugs, no weapons, no large stashes of cash. Yet of those arrested, 38 were convicted, often based on Coleman's testimony alone.

BOB HERBERT: There were these bogus trials where Tom Coleman was the only witness. It was his word against the defendants. And-- and the-- in the atmosphere there, his word was enough to secure convictions.

BILL MOYERS: One of the defendants - a hog farmer - received 90 years. A young man with no previous record received 20 years. Still another, over 300 years.

BOB HERBERT: So people who had not yet gone to trial would see people convicted like that. And getting these-- horrific sentences. And so people began lining up to plead guilty for lesser sentences. So people who had not committed any crime would plead guilty to selling drugs to this fella and settle for, you know, terms like four years, five years in prison.

BILL MOYERS: The mass arrests and convictions gained the attention of the NAACP, the ACLU and other public interest groups. Pro-bono attorneys began their own investigations.

What they learned was stunning: Coleman had worked alone. He didn't tape record his conversations with suspects. He kept no notebook, claiming that he would write notes for the record on his leg. An incredulous Bob Herbert went down to the West Texas town to see what in the world was going on.

BOB HERBERT: And I went down to Tulia. And the information just grew more and more scandalous. And so I had to stay with it, because after a while, you knew that the people in prison were innocent.

BILL MOYERS: What did you learn about Tom Coleman?

BOB HERBERT: Well-- Tom Coleman was one of the-- amazing figures I've ever written about, actually. This was a guy who had a very troubled record as a police officer in other jurisdictions before he got to Tulia. He had-- run afoul of the law himself. Had been accused of stealing gasoline on one job.

It turns out that-- he was fond of using-- racial epithets. It turns out that he was known to have lied on many, many occasions. That he was not trustworthy. That he was hotheaded. That he was a bad cop. I mean this was just a bad figure. And the idea that anyone should go to prison for any length of time based on his say-so and his say-so-alone, is just outrageous.

BILL MOYERS: Yet, he was represented as a hero. He was presented with the highest award

BOB HERBERT: Lawman of the year. The Texas State Attorney General - who went on to become a United States Senator from Texas presented him with the Lawman of the Year Award.

BILL MOYERS: Coleman had certainly impressed prosecutors and jurors in Tulia. On his word, they handed out severe sentences to the accused.

BOB HERBERT: I remember there was one, Freddie Brookins, Junior, is a fella that's in his mid- to late-20's. Never been in trouble with the police before. Got caught up in this thing. And I had interviewed his father before. And his father, sort of a salt of the earth type. A really hardworking guy. Kept his family together despite tough economic times and that sort of thing.

And Mr. Brookins told me, "I couldn't, in all honesty, advise my son to plead guilty to something that he hadn't done." So he pleaded not guilty. So he went to trial. They knew he'd be convicted. He was convicted.

They went to court for the sentencing. And the whole family's there. And Mr. Brookins looked at the rest of the people in the family and said, "I don't want any of you to cry in this courtroom when he's sentenced." He said, "I don't want you to let them know how much they've hurt you." And so they just remained stoic. Freddy got 20 years in prison and they took him away. And that family wept later in the day out of the sight of the people who had harmed their son.

JEFF BLACKBURN: This man made up an accusation and tried to send an innocent person to prison...

BILL MOYERS: Gradually, the work of the pro-bono attorneys was turning up the true story. And Herbert's columns were bringing that story to a national audience.

BILL MOYERS: And the charges against them just completely fell apart, didn't they?

BOB HERBERT: Oh, they absolutely fell apart. And I'll give you an example. I mean there was one young woman, this guy accused her of selling drugs to him just like everyone else. And it turns out that she was not only not in Tulia, but she was out of state in Oklahoma. And, luckily for her, she had cashed a check at a bank in Oklahoma. And there was a timed record of this transaction. And it the just the time that Tom Coleman said that he had been-- that she had been selling drugs to him in Tulia. So they had to drop the charges against her. There were cases like that.

JAMES WHITMIRE, TEXAS SENATOR: All parties agree that these cases are rife with inconsistencies…

BILL MOYERS: Increasingly embarrassed, the Texas power structure could no longer look the other way. The legislature passed a special bill which would allow most of the remaining defendants in prison to be released on bail.

BILL MOYERS: Recently Judge Ron Chapman signed the order setting them free.

JUDGE RON CHAPMAN: The bonds will be set on the following individuals...

BOB HERBERT: That was kind of an amazing day. Because it, you know, this whole thing had gone on so long. And so I remember sitting in the courtroom where these folks had actually been convicted and sent off to prison. And they had a dozen or so defendants actually sitting in the jury box, which was a little strange. And then finally the judge granted them this special bond.

BOB HERBERT: And then they were reunited with their families. And in some cases with their children right there before your eyes. It was very emotional.

BILL MOYERS: Emotional, and bittersweet, as in the case of Joe Moore.

BOB HERBERT: Joe Moore. This was a fellow that when he was arrested, he was about-- 58 or 59-years-old and a hog farmer.

And I'm down in Tulia. And a woman whose children were also in prison because of this thing said, "Let me take you to Joe Moore's house." And it was just one of the most run down, beaten up shacks that I've ever seen in my life. And I remember looking at that thing and I'm thinking to myself, "If this guy is a major drug dealer, there is something wrong."

And it turns out that this was a sweet man who clearly was not guilty of the charges against him. Sentenced to 90 years in prison. Didn't have... forget a folding dollar. Didn't have a penny to his name when he came out of prison.

I said, "What are you gonna do? Did you lose everything?" He said, "Yeah, I lost my hogs. I lost everything." I said, "Well, what are you gonna do?" He said, "I'll tell you the truth. I don't know." So I said, "We're you gonna stay? Do you have a place to live?" And he did not. I mean he had to stay with friends on that night.

And when they sent him away for all of these years, they treated him as though he was actually a dangerous drug dealer. And at one point, they sent him into the maximum security wing of a prison. And you have these young, very dangerous criminals in there.

And they looked at him and they said, "What are you doing in here old man?" And you might think that they would take advantage of a person like this in prison, because these were hard cases. But they didn't. They sympathized with him. And he said they actually looked out for him. He said they were very protective of him.

JOE MOORE AT THE PRESS CONFERENCE: "I'm just glad to be out, to be with my family and stuff..."

BILL MOYERS: The word of one rogue cop had been enough to send innocent people to prison. But he couldn't have done it alone. The judge who freed the convicted also concluded that the county sheriff and the prosecutors either knew or should have known that quote "Coleman is not honest, is not trustworthy..." And Herbert argues that the narcotics task force that hired and rewarded Coleman went too far in its mandate to make drug arrests. In other words, it was our national drug policy that made the Tulia madness possible.

BOB HERBERT: What happens is you have these drug task forces which are financed by the federal government. It's set up in such a way that the more arrests you make, actually the more funding you will get.

So there's a situation in which it's not terribly important to the people conducting these investigations to make sure that these are good arrests. You know the important thing is to make sure that this federal funding continues to come in.

And the reason I think that there's a great deal of racism involved is because-- even though it's acknowledged that-- whites and blacks of this country use drugs. Whites and blacks in this country deal drugs. When you look at the record of some of these task forces, you notice that many of them just zero in like a laser on black and Latino suspects or defendants.

BILL MOYERS: It's not quite the end of the Tulia story. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles has recommended that the governor pardon all but three of the Tulia defendants. A special prosecutor has indicted Tom Coleman on charges of aggravated perjury. The Texas Bar Association has filed a grievance against the district attorney who prosecuted these cases. And in Washington, the House Judiciary Committee plans to hold hearings some time this fall.

Bob Herbert has moved on to other subjects -but he still can't quite put behind him what happened in Tulia.

BILL MOYERS (ADDRESSING HERBERT): Is this one of the reasons you went into journalism?

BOB HERBERT: Well, I suppose if you had said to me, "What are your fantasies?" early on in my career, I would have said, you know, if you could - help some people with your stories. But I could never have imagined that there would be a story like Tulia. And when I began covering it, it wasn't so much that I thought these convictions could be overturned or that these folks could be freed. I covered it for two reasons. One, because I thought it was an outrage. But I also thought it was a good read. I mean, as a journalist, as a columnist, you wanna write interesting stories. I thought it was a good read as well. But I don't know if I really had the strong hope in my head that anything could actually happen.