What happens when you mix a dying Panhandle town, racism and the threat of drugs? You get Tulia, Texas.
I just finished watching Cassandra Hermann and Kelly Whalen's documentary on PBS' Independent Lens and, even though I folowed the story as it happened, I was amazed at HOW it happened.
As Amarillo criminal defense attorney Jeff Blackburn said "Our system of justice gets corrupted whenever we declare war against something."
In 1999, with federal grant money in place, Swisher County jumped headlong into the War on Drugs by hiring Tom Coleman, who was under indictment for theft in Cochran County, as an undercover officer in the Panhandle Narcotics Task Force. Mr. Coleman's uncorroborated testimony led to the indictment of 46 citizens, most of whom were black. This in a town of 5,000.
Among those indicted was Freddie Brookins, Jr., (thanks, Grits, for the correction) a young man without a criminal record. Mr. Brookins proclaimed his innocence and demanded a jury trial. Based on Mr. Coleman's testimony, the jury sentenced Mr. Brookins to 20 years in prison for distribution of cocaine.
Seven other citizens demanded jury trials and they were all convicted and sentenced to terms from 20 to 99 years. Based on those trials, the remaining defendants pled guilty in exchange for shorter sentences or probation.
During the middle of the operation an arrest warrant was issued by Cochran County where Mr. Coleman had been indicted. Swisher County gave Mr. Coleman the benefit of the doubt and attempted to sweep the matter under the rug.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of Mr. Blackburn and attorneys from the NAACP, State District Judge Ron Coleman released the imprisoned citizens on personal bonds in the summer of 2003. Two months later, Governor Rick Perry pardoned them.
Tom Coleman was subsequently convicted of perjury in January 2005, but unlike those whose lives he wrecked, he was given probation by a Lubbock jury.
For those who complain that their fellow citizens are getting out of criminal cases on "legal technicalities," those "technicalities" are the due process rights that we have enshrined in the Bill of Rights - the most revolutionary document yet produced.