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The Nation

Prisoners' Release Is Met With Joy

Four years after their arrest in a drug sting, based on the testimony of a now-discredited undercover officer, 12 inmates taste freedom.

June 17, 2003|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

TULIA, Texas — They stood dazed in the parking lot of the Swisher County Courthouse, 12 men and women in a sea of well-wishers, freed from prison Monday after serving as many as four years on drug convictions that stemmed from the uncorroborated testimony of a discredited undercover officer.

"I just want justice, and to move on with my life," said Kizzie White, 26. "I'm so happy to be with my family and grateful this is almost over."

White was one of 46 Tulia residents, 39 of them black, who were arrested in a 1999 predawn drug raid in this tiny farming community in the Texas panhandle. All were accused of selling powder cocaine to Tom Coleman, a white undercover officer brought in by Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart to rid the town of drugs.

Coleman has since been discredited as a witness and indicted on perjury charges.

The former inmates -- 11 blacks and 1 white -- were released on personal-recognizance bonds while the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Texas Board of Pardon and Parole review their cases. A 13th inmate who appeared in court Monday was also granted bail but remained in custody on drug charges in another county.

A crowd was gathering Monday morning when a white prison bus pulled up outside the courthouse. Mattie White, 51, watched intently. The state prison guard's daughter, son, brother and two cousins were among those who shuffled past in shackles and chains. Inside the building, White peered through the window of a courtroom door, caught her daughter's eye, then turned away in tears.

"I just can't stand to see them in shackles, it gets to me," White said later.

White said she survived the four years because "we have people who believed in them. You can't stay angry, it'll eat you up."

When the prisoners filed into a second courtroom a few hours later, the shackles were gone. Kizzie White spotted her mother and blew kisses while her son, Cashawn, 6, squeezed against his grandmother's side and smiled shyly.

In arguing for the prisoners' release on bond, Vanita Gupta, a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, told retired state judge Ron Chapman that a "gross failure of the justice system deprived them of the most basic guarantees." None of the prisoners was a flight risk, she said, and releasing them on bond would give them "an opportunity to build up their lives again and their futures."

Defense lawyer Jeff Blackburn said it was "not only the right thing to do from a judicial perspective, but it's the right thing to do because there is a true consensus, a true belief by the people as a whole who want to see justice done."

Special prosecutor Rod Hobson, sitting at the same table as the defense lawyers, said that "in light of everything that's happened, it's in the interest of justice to grant bail."

Judge Chapman set bonds ranging from $20,000 to $200,000, and asked the former inmates "to commit to living your lives within the law as the Lord would have you do."

As court was adjourned, families and friends in the courtroom cheered, then rushed the jury box where the former prisoners were sitting. A sheriff's deputy carrying Cashawn White pushed through the crowd and handed the boy to his mother. "Oh, oh," said Kizzie, hugging her son, unable to speak.

Marvin Barrow made his way to the jury box, bellowing to catch the attention of his uncle. "Heyyyy," he called, waving and grinning widely. "You're here," James Barrow said, bending down to embrace his nephew tightly. "You're here."

Before he was arrested in the drug bust, 60-year-old Joe Moore owned 350 hogs on 30 acres of land. Now, "I've just about lost my whole life," he said. "But I'm doing good. I don't blame nobody. I just want to go on from here."

Moore's lowest point camewhen he was sentenced to 90 years in prison, he said. "I went back to my cell and got on my knees and prayed for help, and he did," Moore said.

Timothy Towery, 29, said he wants to leave Tulia as quickly as possible. "Going through this opened up my eyes to reality, how people can be," he said. "I want to leave here, and put it behind me."

Many of the people arrested in the drug raid, fearing the severe sentences juries gave defendants who went to trial, pleaded guilty in return for reduced prison time. Freddie Brookins, Jr. refused to plead guilty for a crime he did not commit. Monday he said he was relieved to be out of prison, "but it's not over yet. It's still going to be on my mind."

As the defendants went to trial it became clear that the evidence against them came almost exclusively from Coleman, who made no surveillance tapes or audio recordings. Instead, he relied on his memory and the notes he said he wrote on his leg after the drug deals.

Thirty-eight people were convicted as a result of Coleman's uncorroborated testimony. Twenty-two were paroled or served time and were released, leaving 16 at state prisons across Texas. Three others remain jailed because their cases are outside Chapman's jurisdiction.

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