What do you get when you combine a corrupt cop, an omnipotent government police task force that is accountable to none, and oppressive drug laws that deny citizens their basic civil liberties? Dozens of innocent people imprisoned essentially for no reason, for allegedly doing harm to nobody but themselves. Who would ever expect such a miscarriage of justice to occur in our great country? The “land of the free”? The “home of the brave”?
Yet, that’s exactly what happened in the small community of Tulia , Texas , on July 23, 1999 , when an 18-month drug sting led to the arrest of 46 of the town’s 4,699 residents. Coordinated by the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force and led by the maverick cop Tom Coleman, the operation netted 38 narcotics trafficking convictions - with defendants receiving sentences as long as 90 years in prison.
It earned Coleman the coveted “Outstanding Lawman of the Year” award, presented by the Texas Narcotic Control Program, in 1999. The sting was a tremendous success, by any lawman’s standards.
Except that it was all a lie.
In April, state district judge Ron Chapman ruled that all 38 convictions should be overturned due to revelations that that Coleman, the sole undercover officer in the sting, fabricated evidence and perjured himself while testifying against the defendants. Twelve of those convicted were released this week, leaving just two of the original 38 in custody. The remaining defendants have already been paroled or released since the judge’s ruling.
This troubling case raises several questions beyond those likely to be introduced by mainstream pundits, which might include legitimate allegations of racial bias or the need for more “policing” of the police.
The first concerns the government’s endless war on illicit drugs and the ridiculous sentences imposed on the victims of this destructive, losing battle. Why were these men and women arrested in the first place?
Most of the defendants in this case were charged with the delivery of 1 to 4 grams of cocaine. Nothing more. Obviously, the corrupt officer Coleman sought delivery charges as opposed to possession in order to maximize sentencing. Distribution of a controlled substance carries significantly greater jail time than does mere possession.
Just for a moment, ignore the fact that the arresting officer, who testified that he bought drugs from the defendants, had no physical evidence against the alleged perpetrators. No video, no audio, no money, no drugs. Also, overlook the fact that he lied in court to seek these false convictions.
Consider the charge that convicted most of the defendants: The delivery of one to four grams of cocaine. One gram? Exactly how much is a gram of cocaine? One gram is equivalent to 0.03257 ounces, or 1/28 ounce. One gram is the weight of a single paperclip. One gram of cocaine will fit on the head of a thumbtack. It’s not much. Yet, it was apparently enough to earn the 38 defendants prison terms ranging from ten years to 90 years.
Consider these defendants and the sentences they received for their “crimes”:
Freddie Brookins Jr., 26. Convicted of delivery of one to four grams of cocaine. Found guilty by a jury and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. No prior convictions.
Kizzie White, 26. Charged with six counts of delivery of cocaine. Found guilty by a jury and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment. The mother of two, White had no prior convictions.
Jason Jerome Williams, 24. Charged with four counts of delivery of one to four grams of cocaine. Found guilty by a jury and sentenced to 45 years imprisonment. Williams had no prior convictions.
Joe Welton Moore, 60. Charged with the delivery of one to four grams of cocaine. Found guilty by a jury and sentenced to 90 years imprisonment. Two prior convictions included possession of cocaine in February 1991 and organized crime in January 1992.
Kareem Abdul Jabaar White, 27. Charged with six counts of delivery of one to four grams of cocaine. Found guilty by a jury and sentenced to 60 years imprisonment. White was previously convicted of a robbery charge on May 12, 1995 . White’s brother, Donnie, and sister, Kizzie, were also arrested on former officer Coleman’s charges.
Keep in mind that the average violent offender in the Texas prison system – those convicted of homicide, assault, rape, kidnapping, or robbery – received a sentence of less than 10 ½ years! Yet, the Tulia 38 got up to 90 years in jail for the distribution of a minute amount of a substance that the government declares illegal.
Several defendants entered guilty pleas after witnessing the lengthy sentences given to their counterparts whose cases went to jury.
Defenders of the Tulia 38 have asserted legitimate claims of racial bias in this case. Thirty-nine of the original 46 who were arrested are black, in a town where the entire black population is less than 500. And the corrupt officer Coleman, a white man, had a checkered law enforcement history that indicated racial bias, including frequent use of racial epithets.
However, these convictions would be impossible but for a criminal justice system that proclaims the possession of a substance banned by the government to be a crime, and that punishes non-violent drug offenders more severely than kidnappers, rapists, or murderers.
Secondly, what kind of judicial system allows such heinous sentences to be imposed on defendants whose prosecution was based solely on the testimony of a single cop with no corroborating evidence?
The charges were clear: The defendants were caught selling drugs to Coleman, the undercover officer, during the 18-month sting. Again, Coleman had little proof beyond his own testimony that the drug buys even occurred. Nevertheless, Swisher County prosecutors ran with his make-believe story, and the mostly white jurors readily believed the corrupt cop’s statements against the mostly black defendants. That some of the defendants had previous criminal records made it even easier for jurors to convict.
The principle behind a trial by jury is to ensure that defendants get a fair shake when the state makes allegations against them. This includes just representation and judgment by one’s peers of the validity of the law, in addition to deciding the guilt or innocence of the accused based upon the charges levied against him.
However, assuming that jurors in each case never questioned whether or not the possession of illegal drugs should be a crime, it is apparent that they voted to convict most of the defendants based on incredibly weak evidence. Obviously, majority rule isn’t so great after all, even when the decision is unanimous. It is highly probable that most, if not all, of the jurors in the case were not aware that they could vote against conviction if they thought the law was unreasonable. Though, it is just as likely that most, if not all, of them do not view current drug laws as unjust.
Originally, jury nullification of the law was considered to be one of the fundamental checks and balances of the American judicial system to ensure that government power did not become oppressive, that justice was not compromised, that the “rule of law” was maintained. Northern jurors frequently used jury nullification to avoid convicting abolitionists who violated the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act that mandated the return of runaway slaves.
But, few jurors today know they can challenge the validity of the law as well as judge the guilt or innocence of the defendant, since courts knowingly conceal jurors’ rights from citizens. And of those who are familiar with the procedure, it is likely that fewer are willing to stick their necks out and risk their own liberty by invoking it.
The government judicial system allowed the Tulia 38 to be convicted to lifetime sentences, in several cases, on little more than the testimony of the arresting officer. It is obvious in these cases, and many others, that a trial by jury is hardly a guarantee that “justice” will be served. I, for one, certainly hope that I never have to rely on a “jury of my peers” to defend me from tyrannical prosecution by a despotic government for breaking some unjust law.
Finally, why are such obviously suspect police operations as the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force allowed to exist and operate, at the expense of the freedoms of law-abiding citizens?
Simple. Money, power, and control--and the desire for more of it. Only in government can such oppressive organizations exist without the consent of the governed. This ability to use force against peaceful individuals is what makes the government unlike any other institution.
As many of us (but not enough, for sure) realize, there are considerable differences between the coercive government sector and the voluntary private sector. But there are also some unfortunate similarities as well.
The differences are obvious. Companies in the open market must meet the demand of consumers in order to earn their trust, their money, and to stay in business. It is a voluntary action between buyer and seller that results in a win-win for everyone involved. No longer like the good or service that a private business provides? You are free to seek goods or services offered by others.
Government, on the other hand, relies on coercive taxation to forcibly provide their “services” to their “customers,” whether the unwilling customer likes it or not. There is no need to meet the demand of the consumer, because they don’t have to! The customer be damned, in other words. Hardly a win-win situation.
Yet, the similarities between the two do exist. Both business and the government have an innate desire to grow, to expand, to become larger. Companies achieve this by providing better services, more products, and/or lower prices to their customers in order to gain market share from their competitors.
Government, on the other hand, grows by imposing new laws, increasing tax burdens, restraining free trade and voluntary acts between consenting adults, and subsequently denying the liberties of its subjects. With few exceptions, government cannot get bigger without restricting the freedoms of peaceful citizens. Thus, drug laws are a natural result of the bureaucrat’s desires to control and manipulate the lives and lifestyles of the citizenry.
Federal restrictions on drugs in the United States first began with the Harrison Act in 1914, which criminalized the use of opium, morphine, cocaine, and similar drugs. Soon after, states passed their own drug laws, many of which were designed to curb the arrival of foreign immigrants from around the world.
In the early 1900s, for example, the use of marijuana in the United States was mostly limited to Mexicans immigrating to the Southwestern states. Of the 22 states that passed marijuana laws prior to national prohibition in 1937, 16 were west of the Mississippi . In fact, members of the Texas legislature used arguments such as “All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff is what makes them crazy” to justify passage of marijuana laws.
In most states, the drug war is considered a growth industry. It provides a method for state governments to attract more federal money, increase law enforcement expenditures, expand prison systems, and steal property from citizens via asset forfeiture laws.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is no exception. It relies on the drug war to continue its rapid growth rate, since drug offenders have represented the majority of incarcerated state jail offenders for many years. Imagine how many state government workers would be laid off if Texas decriminalized non-violent, consensual behavior? Thus, lawmakers who seek a government solution to every societal ill endorse police organizations like the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force, even when the civil liberties of innocent citizens are compromised.
When the government succeeds in compromising basic liberties, civil suits often result, with taxpayers as the sacrificial lambs that ultimately foot the bill. Shortly after the judge’s ruling that the convictions of the Tulia 38 should be overturned, the Swisher County Commission held a special closed session to try to avoid costly civil suits by offering cash settlements to those who were improperly imprisoned. The settlement amounts offered range from $2,000 for those who served no time up to $12,000 for the 13 who remained in prison until this week. It is estimated that the deal would cost the county (and, of course, the taxpayers) around $250,000.
First of all, would you accept twelve grand for four years of wrongful imprisonment? That’s not exactly what I would call just compensation. Considering lost wages alone, they are getting ripped.
Secondly, why should the taxpayers be held accountable for the actions of a corrupt police force that results in the improper arrest and prosecution of the defendants in question? It is the taxpayers who will pay the settlement, whatever the final amount might be.
Instead of being coerced to pay for a government police department that willingly compromises the civil liberties of its own people, why shouldn’t citizens be allowed to choose police protection on their own, from a private company? Not only would they avoid any personal liability for police misconduct, customers could choose alternative providers when such improper conduct occurs. It is unlikely that customers would be willing to pay for private security services that wantonly violate their own liberties.
Unfortunately, the Tulia case is not the exception to the rule. There are new cases every day where individuals are prosecuted for imaginary crimes. In some instances, defendants wait as long as two years, sometimes longer, before their cases go to trial. Convictions occur based upon the flimsiest evidence. As long as lawmen are free to run roughshod over the essential freedoms and liberties of the citizens they vow to protect; as long as police organizations can operate without direct accountability to their “customers”; as long as there are state and federal laws that punish non-violent, consensual behavior; it is likely that there will be more cases like the Tulia 38 in the future.