Reporter Nate Blakeslee's new book describes what can happen if you're arrested in Tulia, Texas -- and you're young and black.
Early one morning in 1999, dozens of young men, most of them black, were rounded up by police in Tulia, Texas, and charged with dealing cocaine. Texas Observer reporter Nate Blakeslee discussed the defendants' eventual exoneration, the corruption of the system, and his new book, Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town.
What was it about what happened in Tulia that caught your interest?
The first I heard about Tulia was after the bust had taken place and there had been about five trials. No one was accused of dealing more than a few hundred dollars' worth of cocaine, but the juries were handing down these amazingly long sentences.
My idea for the story was to interview these rural jurors and ask them what is it about dealing that they think is morally equivalent to murdering someone. It wasn't until I started interviewing defendants and their families and their attorneys that it became evident that it was also a story about a corrupt narcotics officer. Then the question became, were the cases even real to begin with?
How did a man like undercover agent Tom Coleman ever get hired for a law enforcement position in the first place?
It's a breakdown in the criminal justice system on so many different levels that it's hard to know where to begin. First and foremost, I think you have to talk about this federal program that funded the operation. It's known as the Byrne grant. It was hatched in the late '80s, at the height of the drug war. The idea was that the federal government couldn't get a DEA agent in every little town, but they could persuade rural sheriffs to get involved through this grant program. The attitude was that anybody can do narcotics. I think what Tulia has proved is that really that's not true.
What does the story of Tulia reveal about the larger landscape of the national war on drugs?
I think it shows the decline in standards of law enforcement that has come along with the Byrne Grant task force program. And it's not just in Texas; these grants are funding similar drug task forces in almost all rural and suburban areas in the United States. I think it just shows, over time, that the loftier goals of the drug war seem to be receding.
Everyone had the same goal at the outset, which was to reduce drug addiction and the problems that come along with it. After 20 years it's become like any other federal program; it's become a bureaucracy. In fact many of these task forces, especially in Texas, all they really do is go after the low-level users and dealers -- they're basically just arresting the same people over and over again, often just the addicts themselves.
How could an incident of this scale even happen in the first place?
In addition to the Byrne Grant program, the big one that you have to look at is Texas' system of appointing indigent defense. It was up to each judge in Texas to decide how he wanted to do it himself. You can imagine what a low priority it is in some of these conservative, law-and-order communities to make sure someone gets fair representation if they can't afford an attorney and they've been busted for drugs.
The very first trial of the whole Tulia thing was a good example. The defendant's name was Joe Moore, 57 years old. He was accused of delivering $200 worth of cocaine, but Mr. Moore had an enhancement because he had a prior felony. He was looking at up to 99 years. His court-appointed attorney met with him two times, called no witnesses on Joe's behalf during the guilt-innocence phase of the trial. They did jury selection in the morning at about 9 o'clock, and by 6 p.m., he had a 90-year sentence. It was just so shockingly efficient.
What role did racism play in the events?
I don't think that there's anything uniquely racist about the town of Tulia. I think the scandal could have happened in just about any town in America. You do have to talk about race when you look at the sentences, and when you look at the incredibly flimsy evidence on which these people were convicted: the word of one undercover cop with a terribly checkered history who never wore a wire or had video or any other evidence to corroborate his story.
There's a long tradition that dates back to the segregation era, where black communities that used to exist outside city limits were identified with vice and lawlessness. That old stereotype that all the evil in town is rooted in the black community has died hard. That's partly what went into the minds of these jurors -- that this was a chance for them to do something about that.
Did you believe that the men would ultimately be freed?
It certainly didn't look like they would be. It became this huge national story, and laws were passed in the Texas legislature -- how can we prevent another Tulia? There were talks of hearings on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, you still got two dozen people sitting in prison, but very little is being done to get them out. There was a long lull in which some people were quietly working on their cases. There was this call to prevent another Tulia that seemed to drown out the call to get the victims of the original Tulia out of prison. It wasn't until a couple of years later that the ball really got rolling on the post-conviction work.
One very noticeable aspect of your approach to the story is the depth with which you discuss the backgrounds and ancestry of even the most minor figures. What was the importance of addressing individual histories so deeply?
I wanted people to care about the characters in the book. There's 2 million people locked up in the United States -- the drug war has fueled the huge increase in incarceration rates. It's easy to let that glance off your consciousness when it's just numbers. I wanted people to understand that these were people who were falsely accused and locked up. Some of these guys did not have good reputations in town and some of them had past brushes with the law or drug problems. But even somebody, you might even say particularly somebody, that has a questionable reputation is entitled to due process and a fair shake in the legal system.
What happened to the figures of authority who let this whole scandal occur in the first place?
Tom Coleman was indicted for perjury. I think some would question whether or not 10 years' probation is an adequate sentence after some of the people he accused did four years in prison before they were exonerated. He'll never be a police officer again, which you'd like to think was a given.
The district attorney, who certainly has to shoulder a lot of the blame, was defeated by the voters -- curiously, not principally because of the scandal, but because he got a DWI charge.
One judge presided over most of the Tulia cases, Judge Ed Self, and there were many opportunities at which he could have stopped this whole scandal. He in particular witnessed Coleman perjuring himself at an early trial and apparently made a decision to allow him to continue to testify. Nothing has happened to him.
The sheriff who actually hired Tom Coleman and has stood by him even to this day is still the sheriff. He was re-elected at height of controversy. He's a really trusted and respected figure in Swisher County.
Looking back at the whole story now, what is the most tragic part of the whole affair?
The time that was lost by these people and by their families. You can't ever compensate someone for spending four years in prison for something they didn't do. If the system requires four years to fix a problem that never should have occurred in the first place, then it is obviously broken. I am sure these guys felt like they were rotting away in there and everyone had forgotten about them.
Sarah Shemkus is an intern at The American Prospect.