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Officer in Bogus Drug Arrests Is Convicted

January 15, 2005|From Associated Press

LUBBOCK, Texas — The lone undercover agent in a sting that sent dozens of black people to prison on false drug charges in a small Texas town was convicted Friday of one of two perjury counts, and may serve his sentence on probation.

Tom Coleman was acquitted of testifying falsely in a 2003 hearing that as a sheriff's deputy he never stole gas from county pumps. He was found guilty of saying he did not learn about the theft charge against him until August 1998.

Jurors deliberated for less than an hour before recommending probation. They sentenced him to seven years in prison, but because he had no prior felony convictions decided he could serve the time on probation.

The judge agreed and would rule Tuesday on the length and terms of the sentence.

John H. Read II, Coleman's lawyer, said probation was "punishment enough."

Prosecutors said Coleman deserved harsher punishment, going into detail in the trial about the bogus drug arrests in the Panhandle town of Tulia.

In the late 1990s, Coleman arrested 46 people, most of them black, in the mostly white farming community. He worked alone and used no audio or video surveillance. No drugs or large amounts of money were found, but 38 defendants were convicted or reached plea bargains.

Gov. Rick Perry pardoned 35 of the defendants in 2003, after an investigation into the drug cases was launched amid charges that they were racially motivated. It was during the investigation that Coleman made his false statement in court.

Coleman could not be prosecuted for testimony he gave at the drug defendants' trials because the statute of limitations had expired.

Coleman built cases and made arrests for 18 months. Some of those convicted received sentences of as much as 90 years, and some served four years before they were pardoned.

Last year, 45 of those arrested shared a $6-million settlement of a civil rights lawsuit against Coleman and the 26 counties and three cities involved with the drug task force.

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