Trouble Tackling Tulia

The attorney general's office has already run into trouble in its investigation of the notorious 1999 Tulia drug bust, already the subject of two federal probes. The AG's office wouldn't comment, but ACLU of Texas Executive Director Will Harrell says Swisher/Hale Co. District Attorney Terry McEachern -- who prosecuted 46 people on drug charges on the questionable testimony of a single undercover narc -- has yet to turn over the cases to the state. Citizens can visit the ACLU Web site (www.aclu.org/stateaction/tulia-tx.html) to send a free fax to McEachern urging him to relinquish the cases. So far, more than 700 Texans have done so, the ACLU reports.

Harrell, other advocates, lawmakers, and the media have all criticized AG John Cornyn for dragging his feet on Tulia and linked his sudden interest in the case to his U.S. Senate contest with Ron Kirk. Earlier, Cornyn's office had claimed the AG was forbidden to investigate without an invitation from Swisher Co. officials, but no such prohibition exists. "The problem is that in Texas, prosecutors and law enforcement stand by each other," Harrell said. Meanwhile, 14 Tulia defendants remain in prison; several got sentences of 90 years or more.

Cornyn's potential successors -- Democrat Kirk Watson and Republican Greg Abbott -- both say they will continue any ongoing Tulia investigation if they're elected. Abbott didn't elaborate except to say, through a spokesperson, that "he will prosecute any wrongdoing and root out any injustice." Watson, who says the Tulia investigation "should have started a long time ago," says he supports an "aggressive" effort with firm deadlines.

The Tulia bust was mounted under the auspices of one of Texas' federally funded and largely autonomous regional narcotics task forces. (Another such task force mounted the raid that led to the death of Travis Co. Sheriff's Deputy Keith Ruiz.) Harrell and the ACLU think such groups should be abolished; the program "is a waste of money that costs individuals not only tax dollars but also their civil rights," he says. Even Gov. Rick Perry has called for the task forces to be supervised by the Texas Dept. of Public Safety. (Harrell says that would be "a courageous move.")

Watson, who says he's a "big believer in doing things at the local level," thinks there is a legitimate role for regional law enforcement. But a lack of clear standards and objectives guiding the task forces, as well as their lack of accountability to the public, has led to debacles like Tulia. "Too often the criticism is that [drug task forces are] all about the numbers," Watson said. "It ought to be about public safety. There's value in marshalling and efficiently using resources to protect the public, but obviously changes need to be made."

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