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35 Are Pardoned in Texas Drug Case

THE NATION

A final chapter closes on a misguided 1999 sweep. The informant whose word led to lengthy sentences for many is charged with perjury.

August 23, 2003|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — Marking the end of a criminal case that devastated a North Texas town, Gov. Rick Perry on Friday pardoned 35 people ensnared in a 1999 drug sweep, months after a state judge determined that the charges were founded on little more than innuendo.

The 35 residents of Tulia, Texas, almost all of them African American, were among 46 people who were arrested during the predawn raid, by far the biggest ever seen in the town of 5,000.

The charges, which brought many defendants lengthy prison sentences, were based on the allegations of a single informant, a man once celebrated in Tulia and given a Texas Lawman of the Year award. The informant, who worked alone and had virtually no evidence beyond his word -- such as audiotapes of his supposed drug buys -- has since been charged with perjury.

Most of the accused were released on bail in June after a state district judge determined that the informant, Tom Coleman, was "simply not a credible witness" and had withheld evidence. The judge also asked the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to overturn the convictions; the appeals court has not yet weighed the case.

Prosecutors, who could not be reached Friday evening, have said they have no plans to file new charges against the defendants.

"It's good to be free -- completely free," said Freddy Brookins Jr., 26, a husband and father and the son of the local National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People chapter president. Brookins had been sentenced to 20 years in prison after being convicted on cocaine charges.

Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart did not return a phone call seeking comment. Coleman, who no longer works in law enforcement, could not be reached.

This summer, Perry asked the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to look into the case. The board recommended the pardons unanimously, the governor said.

"Texans demand a justice system that is tough but fair," he said in a statement. "I believe my decision to grant pardons in these cases is both appropriate and just."

Of the 46 people arrested -- which included about 10% of Tulia's African American community -- 38 were prosecuted.

The pardon does not affect three people, including twin brothers who remain jailed on separate charges because the Tulia charges affected their parole on older cases, said Alan Bean, a former pastor and the executive director of Friends for Justice, a legal advocacy group formed to raise awareness about the Tulia arrests.

A number of the defendants had been waiting for pardons so they could move on with their lives.

Brookins, for example, said he is waiting to attend Amarillo College but could not begin taking classes until the pardon arrived.

Others had hoped to move out of Tulia but were unable to leave because, until the pardon, their movements were restricted, Bean said.

"A lot of lives were on hold until this announcement came down. I'm really hoping this will free people up emotionally, allow them to move on, to get an education, a full-time job -- the kind of things that are difficult when you are incarcerated for a long period of time," Bean said.

"When everybody was released in June, it was a great celebration, but you couldn't really let go. There was still this unresolved issue hanging over us, and a lot of defendants really felt kind of frozen or immobile. Now that's been removed."

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