Taking the Sting Out of Tulia

‘Good Samaritans’ Fight For Human Rights In Drug War

CRAWFORD — The Revs. Alan and Nancy Bean never dreamed of being on the front lines of the “war on drugs” — let alone actually getting involved in it in their small West Texas town.

But in 1999, these two ordained Baptist ministers were called to form “Friends of Justice Tulia” to get the word out to the national media, NAACP, the ACLU, and the Justice Department that there was something fishy about a local drug sting.

The sting itself initially received glowing yet nasty coverage in their hometown newspaper.

“When I first heard about the drug sting, actually I didn’t know that everybody was black. The race of those arrested was not given in the newspaper account, which is what I was going on,” Rev. Alan Bean told the Iconoclast. “What got me was that they were described as scumbags and known drug dealers in an editorial in the Tulia paper.”

Indeed, 39 of the 46 people arrested for allegedly dealing cocaine were African American and so poor that they had no houses or cars of their own. Moreover, the “drug kingpin,” a 57-year-old pig farmer who lived in a run-down shack, was convicted and given a 90-year sentence.

Yet as the first of the trials were happening, Rev. Bean questioned the verdicts more closely: Why should the sentences be so long? How could there be 46 drug dealers in a town of 5,000? How could any jury convict any alleged criminal on the testimony of a single narcotics agent?

To Rev. Bean, this style of due process just didn’t make sense biblically.

“The Bible says that nobody is to be convicted except on the word of at least two witnesses. That’s not just a passing reference in the Bible. Moses said it. Paul confirmed it. Jesus confirmed it. I mean, no matter who your favorite figure is in the Bible, they said it,” said Rev. Bean. “That teaching isn’t just there because it appealed to somebody. It just made sense. It’s not just to take any single person’s word for anything, particularly when a person’s freedom is riding on the line.”

As this lone undercover agent — Tom Coleman — was basking in the spotlight of his work, more information surfaced. Coleman made his living working low-level law enforcement jobs in country towns. His position was funded through a federal anti-drug program that reached rural areas outside of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

However, Coleman made for a lousy undercover agent, never wearing a wire, taking photographs and videotapes, nor hiring a partner to verify his work on the Tulia sting. Still, a number of predominately white juries believed him and sent the defendants to prison with terms ranging from 90 years to 400 years, the latter given for one man with a prior conviction.

With its team of racially-integrated and persistent volunteers, the Friends of Justice eventually obtained media exposure. An article in the Texas Observer and a documentary on the irregularities of the Tulia case convinced several civil rights organizations to take the case seriously.

Coleman — who had received a “Lawman of the Year” award for this work in Tulia, though he himself had a criminal record — was later indicted for fabricating evidence and suppling false trial testimony. Texas Gov. Rick Perry eventually pardoned the defendants, releasing them from prison. Tulia’s drug task force was also closed in a $6 million settlement with the victims.

Read the rest here.

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