AUSTIN, Texas – All Joe Moore wanted to do after being freed from a Texas prison on June 16 was to go home, eat some barbecued ribs, and take a hot bath.
Moore, 56 and suffering from diabetes, was one of 12 African Americans released from prison after their 1999 conviction for selling cocaine had been exposed as a racist act based on the testimony of a pathological liar who worked as a private informant for a local drug war taskforce.
Moore’s troubles began in the summer of 1999 when he and 45 other residents of Tulia, a West Texas town of 5,000, were arrested by members of the Panhandle Regional Drug Task Force, who swooped through the area at night, rousting suspects and hauling them off to jail. Thirty-nine of those arrested were African American. The other seven were either Hispanic or white people who were dating African Americans. The local media hailed the arrests as a coup for the task force.
But the arrests were based solely on evidence provided by Tom Coleman, an informant who used racist terms when referring to the defendants. Before he began working for the task force, Coleman had been arrested for stealing gasoline while working as a deputy and for theft from local merchants who had extended him $7,000 worth of credit that he never repaid.
Moore and three other defendants were tried in 1999. Coleman testified that he, then an undercover agent, had bought cocaine from the defendants. The only evidence offered by the prosecution was Coleman’s testimony – testimony that he pretty much made up as he went along. He had taken no notes and his incident reports were sketchy to say the least.
But despite this Moore, Jason Jerome Williams, Christopher Eugene Jackson, and Freddy Brooks, Jr. were convicted and given prison sentences of from 20 to 90 years. The prosecutor demanded tough sentences because Coleman said the so-called drug deals he was involved in were made near schools.
After these harsh sentences, other defendants began making deals with the prosecutors. Some received probation, but others were sent to prison.
The convictions began to unravel after Coleman’s credibility and character came to light. Information about the circumstances under which he left his previous jobs came out. The NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund and other civil rights organizations asked the Justice Department to investigate. An investigation was begun, but when John Ashcroft became attorney general it was dropped.
In July 2001 a Freedom Ride arrived in Tulia, where 350 people demonstrated and called for justice for those wrongly convicted. The protestors were met by a large contingent of local and state police who watched nearby as the rally proceeded.
During the summer of 2002, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert began writing about the injustice in Tulia. His columns focused national attention on tiny Tulia and its curious system of justice.
When authorities could no longer ignore the mounting evidence that Moore’s conviction and those of the others were based on lies, Judge Ed Self, who presided over the original trial, called a special hearing in early 2003 to hear evidence about Coleman’s credibility and appointed retired Judge Ron Chapman to conduct the hearing. After one day of testimony Chapman ruled that Coleman was not a credible witness and called for a retrial. In his report Chapman wrote: “Coleman is the most non-responsive witness the court has ever witnessed in 25 years on the bench.” Coleman was also charged with perjury.
After the hearing, the prosecution announced that it would not retry the defendants.
The defendants should have been set free but continued to languish in prison instead. Gov. Rick Perry (R.) could have pardoned them but declined to do so. Instead, it took special action by the legislature to free the defendants, who walked free and into the arms of loved ones on June 16.
They have not yet been completely exonerated. They are out on bail awaiting a ruling from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The whole incident is an indictment of the racist Texas penal system and the war on drugs, many have said.
It’s also clear from this fiasco that the war on drugs has degenerated into a racist game of numbers. Task forces like the Panhandle Task Force receive federal grants based on the number of arrests they make.
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