March 11, 2004
$5 Million Settlement Ends Case of Tainted Texas Sting
By ADAM LIPTAK
Five years after 46 people, almost all of them black, were arrested on fabricated drug charges in Tulia, Tex., their ordeal will draw to a close today with the announcement of a $5 million settlement in their civil suit and the disbandment of a federally financed 26-county narcotics task force responsible for the arrests.
The case attracted national attention because the number of people charged literally decimated the small town's black population. It also gained notice because the arrests were entirely based on the work of an undercover narcotics agent who has been accused of racism and perjury. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas pardoned the Tulia defendants in August, after a court hearing last March exonerated them.
"This is undoubtedly that last major chapter in the Tulia story, and this will conclude the efforts of people in Tulia to get some compensation and justice," said Jeff Blackburn, a lawyer in Amarillo who represented the people arrested five years ago in the civil suit. "With the abolition of the task force, it completely closes the circle on what was done."
Mr. Blackburn added that the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force failed adequately to supervise the agent, Tom Coleman, in its eagerness to win battles in the war on drugs.
Tulia is a poor town of 5,000 people between Amarillo and Lubbock. The $5 million will be divided among 45 former defendants based on a formula that will take account of whether they served time in prison and how long. One defendant has since died.
The settlement will be paid by the City of Amarillo, which had a leading role in running the task force. Marcus W. Norris, the city attorney, said many drug task forces in Texas were poorly organized and governed. That led, he said, to poor supervision of Mr. Coleman in Tulia, a lack of accountability and catastrophic misjudgments.
"There's a lesson here," Mr. Norris said, "that cities should be very careful about these alliances."
Mr. Coleman, who was named Texas Lawman of the Year in 1999 for his work in Tulia, will go on trial on perjury charges in May. He has pleaded not guilty. Jon Mark Hogg, a lawyer for Mr. Coleman, declined to comment on the civil settlement.
At a hearing last year in Tulia, Mr. Coleman testified that although most of the drug transactions he swore to were in public places and that he did not wear a recording device, arrange for video surveillance, ask anyone to observe the deals or fingerprint the plastic bags containing the drugs.
Instead, he said, he jotted down information on his leg. No drugs, weapons or large sums of cash were found in the mass arrest in 1999.
Mr. Coleman conceded that he frequently used a racial epithet, but he denied that he was a racist.
Judge Ron Chapman, who presided over the hearing, found that Mr. Coleman had committed "blatant perjury."
Judge Chapman wrote that Mr. Coleman was "the most devious, nonresponsive law enforcement witness this court has witnessed in 25 years on the bench in Texas."
Tonya White was among those arrested in 1999. She was able to refute Mr. Coleman's charge that she sold cocaine to him by producing bank records showing she was 300 miles away, in Oklahoma City, at the time. She said the most important aspect of the settlement was disbanding the task force.
"I'm glad they can't do this to anyone else," she said.
Swisher County, of which Tulia is the seat, was also a member of the task force but continues to deny any liability in the case.
"We have stated for the last five years that we don't think there was any wrongdoing in this case," said Judge Harold Keeter of Swisher County. But he suggested that the county might be prepared to make a contribution to the settlement.
Mr. Coleman was supervised by two task force officials who were also members of the Amarillo Police Department, Lt. Michael Amos and Sgt. Jerry Massengill. As part of the settlement, Mr. Norris said, they will take early retirement.
"They were good officers," Mr. Norris said. "They exercised poor judgment in this case."
Lieutenant Amos declined to comment on that assertion. He said he had been planning to retire this year, anyway. Sergeant Massengill said he had no comment.
Mr. Norris noted that Mr. Coleman was not employed by the Amarillo Police Department and did not meet its standards.
Vanita Gupta, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which also represents the plaintiffs along with the Washington firm of Hogan & Hartson, said it was a mistake to focus only on Mr. Coleman's actions.
"The task force is ultimately culpable for what happened in Tulia," Ms. Gupta said. "They hired, supervised and sponsored Tom Coleman's activity in the 18 months he was operating there."
"It's not that Tom Coleman was simply a rogue officer," Ms. Gupta added. "The problem is that federally funded narcotics task forces operate nationwide as rogue task forces because they are utterly unaccountable to any oversight mechanism."
Mr. Blackburn said the settlement had the potential to draw attention to the work of similar task forces.
"I am really hopeful that this will send a shock wave to Austin," Mr. Blackburn said, "and that it will result in a complete systematic overhaul of narcotics enforcement in Texas."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company