The lies of one police officer resulted in 38 false convictions for drug trafficking in the small Texas town of Tulia.
Undercover police officer Tom Coleman provided the sole testimony for the 1999 arrests of 46 Tulia residents, 39 of them black (about 10% of the small town’s black population). Although there was absolutely no corroborating evidence or witnesses to back up Coleman’s allegations, 38 people were convicted, many sentenced to terms in prison from 20 to 90 years.
The series of convictions earned Coleman the Texas Lawman of the Year award in 1999. Yet Coleman was indicted this April on felony perjury charges in connection with the case.
Special prosecutors, defense lawyers and a district judge produced a “Findings of Fact” after court-ordered evidentiary hearings. Their findings detail over two dozen instances of Coleman’s “perjured and misleading testimony.” The report’s authors were unanimously convinced that all 38 convictions should be thrown out.
A May editorial in the Austin American-Statesman called it a “cruel insult to justice” that Coleman was still free awaiting trial, while 13 Tulia defendants remained in prison after more than four years. “It is simply incredible that the government that was so quick to lock them up is so slow to set them free,” complained the newspaper.
Before working undercover in Swisher County, Coleman had been a deputy in nearby Cochran County. That county had issued a warrant for his arrest in the summer of 1998 for stealing county-owned gasoline two years before. Charges were dismissed after Coleman made restitution.
Texas newspapers demanded that Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart and District Attorney Terry McEachern be held accountable, and speculated that they had “concealed and suppressed facts” about Coleman’s disreputable past and his unfounded accusations.