Tulia, Too Late

Civil rights advocates and opponents of the "war on drugs" were relieved by the announcement last week that state Attorney General and U.S. Senate candidate John Cornyn will initiate a probe into the notorious drug bust in the Panhandle town of Tulia. But is it too late?

After months of criticism from civil rights groups and state and national media, state attorney general and U.S. Senate candidate John Cornyn announced that his office will finally investigate the notorious 1999 drug bust in the Panhandle town of Tulia. In most cases, the testimony of a single narcotics agent led to the arrests of 46 people -- 43 of whom were black. The accused represented 16% of the town's black population; 14 still languish in prisons scattered around Texas.

While civil rights advocates, drug war opponents, and others are pleased by the news, they aren't exactly singing Cornyn's praises. "Sometimes, late is nowhere near good enough," wrote Dallas Morning News columnist Ruben Navarrette on Aug. 30. "Sometimes, late is so obviously a case of being pushed into doing the right thing not by notions of morality and justice, but by public pressure and political expediency, that late amounts to no more than a display of poor leadership and an insult to people's intelligence."

Pressure on Cornyn has increased in recent months, particularly after one defendant was proved to be in Oklahoma City at the time of her supposed drug sale to narcotics agent Tom Coleman. (Her case has been dismissed.) In other cases, Coleman admitted writing crucial notes on his legs and other body parts, provided no audio or video evidence, and occasionally misidentified defendants. Despite these weaknesses, Swisher Co. DA Terry McEachern had no qualms about prosecuting the cases, which Coleman made under the aegis of the federally funded Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force.

As was publicized in recent columns by New York Times writer Bob Herbert, as recently as three weeks ago Cornyn's office refused to launch a Tulia probe, limiting its role to helping the U.S. Dept. of Justice with its criminal and civil-rights investigation of the bust. That probe began in October 2000 in response to requests from the Texas ACLU and NAACP -- who also called for a halt in federal funding to the Panhandle Task Force, one of several such narcotics operations in Texas.

Cornyn "does stand ready to assist federal authorities in any way that we can assist them in their ongoing investigation," a Cornyn spokesman told Herbert, who then learned that the DOJ had already closed its criminal probe of Coleman; the civil rights probe was dragging. "You can file that comment in the empty gestures folder," Herbert wrote of the spokesman's response.

According to Texas ACLU Executive Director Will Harrell, when former Gov. George W. Bush -- on whose watch the Tulia bust occurred --headed off to Washington, the DOJ probe stopped. "There have never been any criminal charges brought" against Coleman or others behind the sting, Harrell says. "Nor did a federal review of the convictions take place." So, in mid-July 2002, the ACLU asked Cornyn's office to investigate Tulia and all other prosecutions involving Coleman, Swisher Co. Sheriff Larry Stewart (who hired Coleman), McEachern, and the Panhandle Task Force and other Texas drug task forces.

In a written response, Michael McCaul, Cornyn's deputy AG for criminal justice, told the ACLU that in light of the DOJ investigation, a state probe would be "duplicative." Then, at the House Judicial Affairs Committee's Aug. 15 meeting, McCaul claimed that state law prohibited Cornyn from investigating without an invitation from McEachern or the judge who tried the original cases. After rigorous questioning from committee chairwoman Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, McCaul admitted that no such statute existed, but that it was internal policy not to intervene in local affairs. Yet Thompson says that district attorneys from across the state have complained to her that Cornyn's office has intervened in their cases without being asked. "Tulia probably would not have been something we would have been talking about if [Cornyn's] assistant hadn't been so evasive," she said. "That led several members to be very concerned."

Not everyone agrees that the Tulia affair has been badly handled. The Amarillo Globe-News has offered a few irritated editorials, including a noteworthy Aug. 29 piece, "Defending his city," that attempts to polish the image of Tulia and Sheriff Stewart. "For more than a year," the paper said, Stewart has "kept silent about [Tulia], hoping the cases would run their course and the furor would die down." Since it hasn't, "Stewart has decided to step forward and defend his hometown and the undercover operation, in which he still believes." In Stewart's Tulia, thousands of dollars are raised locally to help needy families "regardless of color," the rich remodel the homes of the poor, and people are "wonderful." (Apparently, they also change color: In the article, 39 of the 46 Tulia defendants were black; in an editorial published the same day, 37 were black; but in an Aug. 22 article, 40 defendants had "happened to be black.")

Harrell says he would prefer outright dismissal of the 14 remaining cases, but would accept retrials "as long as they are fair." He also believes the federal criminal probe of Coleman should resume and be broadened to include Stewart and McEachern. Meanwhile, the Panhandle Task Force and others statewide continue to receive federal funding through the Governor's office; the ACLU seeks serious reforms, if not outright abolition, of these operations, due to reports of racial profiling and corruption. Gov. Rick Perry has made some recommendations for reform, Harrell said.

"The eyes of the world are on Tulia," said Harrell. "I'm not too worried about whether Cornyn's going to do the right thing, but he needs guidance ... We don't want this to drag on any more." The House Judicial Affairs Committee will revisit the Tulia case at its Sept. 6 meeting.

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