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Victims in Tainted Sting Win Settlement

Amarillo, Texas, will pay $5 million to the 45 people wrongly jailed in a raid in nearby Tulia.

March 12, 2004|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — Victims of a discredited 1999 drug sting in the Texas panhandle town of Tulia will receive a $5-million settlement from the nearby city of Amarillo, attorneys announced Thursday.

Two women who were swept up in the early morning raid, which civil rights groups said was racially motivated, brought a lawsuit last year. Amarillo -- the lead city in the regional narcotics task force involved -- is the first government entity to settle.

The money will be divided among 45 people -- 37 of them black -- who were wrongly arrested. Thirty-five of those convicted later were pardoned by Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

"This is a big day for the case and a big day for our clients, and we think it will bring closure to the injustice that happened in Tulia," said Vanita Gupta, a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund who helped win the release of the Tulia prisoners last summer.

Under the settlement, Amarillo will dismantle the drug task force that oversaw the activities of a rogue undercover agent, Tom Coleman. Coleman, who is white, worked alone and used no audio or video surveillance. His uncorroborated testimony later was found to be so unreliable that a Texas judge said it would be "a travesty of justice to permit the convictions to stand."

Coleman will face perjury charges at a trial in May.

Given the "egregious facts in the case," Amarillo had no choice but to settle, City Atty. Marcus W. Norris said in a phone interview. "We could not begin to defend what happened here."

Texas law is unclear on who is legally responsible when a multiagency task force runs amok, Norris said. But since Amarillo was the main participant, its liability could have exceeded $50 million, he said.

"We're not Houston or Dallas. Had we received an adverse jury verdict, it would have been devastating for Amarillo, and we could not take that financial gamble. Once we begin explaining some of the facts that would have come into trial, [the settlement] is a very rational decision, albeit a pill," Norris said.

A claims administrator will divide the money by looking at factors such as length of time spent in jail and harm suffered by the criminal proceedings, Gupta said. Most of the Tulia victims were jailed between one and four years. Others received probation or had the charges dismissed. Mediation is ongoing with 26 counties and the other three cities named in the lawsuit.

Since their release from prison, most of the raid's victims have stayed in Tulia because of family ties, Gupta said. "We're encouraging the clients to move out, but that's easier said than done. Now they have the resources to reassess whether they want to stay in a town with no thriving economy. [The settlement money] may help them look at their lives with more room for opportunity," she said.

Former Tulia inmate Kizzie White, 26, said the money would help but it was "still not going to bring back the four years I missed out with my kids."

"I still think about what happened," said White, a home healthcare provider. "When I was in jail, it was like a nightmare. It helps to know that people realize they made a mistake. Hopefully it won't happen again."

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