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Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town
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26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
This is a superlative expose of what happened in Tulia, a small, dusty town in the Texas Panhandle. Beautifully written, it tells a compelling story of justice denied, thanks to a corrupt group of law enforcement officials and a rogue, undercover narcotics cop.

As a career prosecutor for over twenty years, I was appalled at the events that unfolded within the pages of this absorbing book. It is the role of a prosecutor to seek justice. It is not the role of a prosecutor to behave in the reprehensible and despicable fashion that Terry McEachern, the prosecutor in Tulia did. I only hope that he will eventually be disbarred, if he has not already been disbarred for his complicity in the travesty of justice that occurred in Tulia.

In 1999, about twenty percent of the adult Black population of Tulia found itself arrested. Pulled out of their homes in the wee hours of the morning in all stages of dishabille, all found themselves accused of selling cocaine to Tom Coleman, an undercover cop who would prove to be something other than what he seemed. His true colors, however, would not come to light publicly until after he was named Officer of the Year.

It would turn out that Coleman's only claim to fame was the fact that his father had been a member of that hardy breed of lauded officers known as the Texas Rangers. He was, evidently, nothing like his father, who was by all accounts a well-respected lawman. The only saving grace for his father is that he mercifully died before his son's infamy came to light. Of course, it should be noted that Tom Coleman was able to operate as he did, thanks to the Sheriff of Tulia, Larry Stewart, who supported Coleman until the bitter end. Sheriff Stewart was not worthy of the shield that he wore.

Coleman's undercover work was like no undercover work I have ever come across as a career prosecutor. The caliber of his work, which was highly suspect, was such that it would be totally laughable, were it not for the fact that most of the accused found themselves convicted on the word of this less than credible witness against them and sentenced to draconian sentences worthy of murderers. Ed Self, the judge who presided over the trials, did not seem to understand the applicable law and did not ensure that the defendants had a fair trial. He is certainly not worthy of the robe that he wears, and the prosecutor, as I said, should be disbarred for his complicity in this debacle.

Many of the defense attorneys were also appalling, providing, at best, ineffective assistance of counsel to their hapless clients. There were some defense attorneys, however, who tried to do the right thing by their clients. The problem, however, was that they did not have all the information at their disposal that the prosecution was ethically obligated to give them, so their efforts were handicapped.

Thanks, however, to the efforts of some outraged townspeople and local attorneys, the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, and the pro bono efforts of a number of big firm attorneys, some measure of justice was eventually meted out. Unfortunately, by the time this finally happened some of the protagonists had spent years in some pretty tough prisons for crimes that they did not commit. Still, the concerted effort on behalf of these wrongfully convicted individuals was nothing short of heroic.

This is a highly detailed, meticulously written book that delivers a story so compelling and absorbing that it will keep the reader compulsively turning the pages until the very last. This book is an example of investigative reporting at its finest, taking the reader into the belly of the beast of corruption and comprehensively exposing its workings in the historical context out of which it arose. It is a stunning indictment of a system that allowed a rogue cop, such as Tom Coleman, to flourish at the expense of others. Bravo!
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
One morning in 1999, in the little cow town of Tulia in the Texas panhandle, before the sun came up, a force of state and local police burst into homes, arresting 47 men and women who had no way of anticipating what had hit them. News cameras were there to show the half-dressed suspects being led from their homes. A neighbor exclaimed, "They're arresting all the black folks!" and it must have seemed that way. Those arrested were mostly black, and they were twenty percent of the little town's black adult population. The _Tulia Sentinel_'s headline proclaimed, "Tulia's Streets Cleared of Garbage." The big sting was for drug dealing, leaving some to wonder if there were all those drug dealers, how many drug users were left as their market in such a little place. It wasn't the first tinge of doubt about the arrests, and four years later after a bitter struggle, those found guilty were sprung from prison and the charges were annulled and restitution made. It's a sordid, fascinating study of justice misguided and justice eventually triumphant that casts light on race relations and the national war on drugs, and it is told excitingly in _Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town_ (PublicAffairs) by Nate Blakeslee. It is smoothly written and even though we know the outcome beforehand since it is not a novel, it has a great deal of suspense and plenty of memorable characters.

There are a surfeit of bad guys here, but they all depended on the fraudulent handiwork of Tom Coleman, a scruffy character ("a bad cop from central casting") whose strongest merit was that his father had been a superb Texas Ranger. Coleman's evidence always consisted of his word against that of the suspects; he never had another cop witness his buys and he never had audio or video of them. The sheriff who had hired him from the pool of narcs in the drug force in Amarillo, an upright deacon and leader of his church, was not troubled by such matters. The processes of the trials, and the scant evidence against the defendants, did not bother the judge, nor was he worried that the impoverished suspects were getting proper counsel. Indeed, Texas Attorney General John Cornyn (now a US Senator) presented the award of Officer of the Year to Tom Coleman after the Tulia arrests. The Texas ACLU became involved, and Blakeslee himself wrote newspaper exposés in 2000. After the national press started picking up on the story, a young lawyer at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund began drafting habeas corpus petitions to get the prisoners free, and she got pro bono assistance from large out-of-state law firms. The effort didn't all come from outside Tulia, though. A big part of the story belongs to Gary Gardner, an obese bankrupt farmer good-old-boy and self-trained legal authority who realized that his fellow citizens were being railroaded, and started his own research. At one point he was examining a questionable correction on a document in the case with his microscope that he usually used to search for boll weevil eggs. To the embarrassment of the liberal heroes who were his allies in working for the prisoners, Gardner sprinkled his conversation with racial slurs, but he was a strong agent in defending those who had been wrongly convicted.

It was touch and go for the prisoners and other accused. There is a satisfying resolution for all involved (including various types of condemnation of the bad guys), but Blakeslee shows how the outcome was by no means assured. The narcotics task forces described here often consist of undercover agents who are loosely supervised. When Coleman's cases blew up, one former narc said, "Everybody's talking about Tom Coleman - well, there are whole task forces of Tom Colemans out there." One of the many drug-war related problems here is that there may not be a comparable number of idealistic lawyers who will do the hard, frustrating, and unremunerative work to expose them. Besides being a devastating critique of current tactics of the war on drugs, and of Texas Justice, and of ingrained racism, this is above all a fine legal thriller.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on November 25, 2005
I first read about the travesty of justice in Tulia, Texas in columnist Bob Herbert's column in The New York Times that I get online. I immediately felt an outrage at this situation, so I was eager to read this book that details the whole thing. It is a fascinating look at what seemingly passes for justice, but is really a gross racial slam to about 40 people in this small town. I especially liked the last 2/3 of the book when the "good guys" got their day in court and exposed the only witness to this travesty as a lying, bigoted criminal. It was court room drama at its best. I recommend this book as a great piece of nonfiction.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on November 29, 2005
I find myself with so many conflicting thoughts about this book that I hardly know where to start, so with no particular order in mind:

The Drug War: We've fought this battle for a lot of years now. We've assisted in the shooting down and killing of American missionaries in South America. We've put an enormous number of people in prison. And as this book shows, some of them were clearly convicted with false evidence. Do we see any reduction in the amount of drugs being used? Hey guys, the drug war isn't working. Try something different.

Police Power: This book shows what corrupt law enforcement can do. Tell me again why we should give these people more power through the Patriot's Act.

Capital Punishment: If this kind of false testimony can get people prison sentences of up to 361 years, can you really say that this couldn't happen in a capital crime. And after you kill them, how do you go back to free them and provide restitution?

Conclusions:

1. You don't want to live in Texas. Then again our little town has a similar scandal 25 or so years ago of a police force out of control.

2. The case was really broken open by an NAACP lawyer. Where would we turn if we needed such help.

3. This is the story of one town, one situation. How many others exist that we don't know about?
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon November 2, 2005
I've still only ever written maybe 3 book reviews, so cut me some slack. I figure some of you know some things about this story and some do not. I hate reading book reviews on Amazon where someone gives away key points or the whole ending, so if my review seems to be light on specific details it's because I don't want to spoil anything for anyone.

This is one of those books where if it was fiction you probably wouldn't believe it. There'd be an overwhelming sense of the government not being able to be THIS cruel (yet Keystone Cop about it) and so uninterested in justice so many times in a row. So the fact that this story is all true makes it just that much more saddening and infuriating. This is also a book of heroes, though. Not overly dramatic, cheesy, fake Hollywood heroes. This is a well-crafted tale of real heroes who went out of their way to do things most people wouldn't have done, to try to help people that most of white America never takes any active notice of. In essence, you'll see great examples of the good and horrible in our system of government.

I'd like to see what our federal, state and local governments' views (and more importantly, the views of the U.S. citizenry) of The Drug War would be if there had ever been even just 3 days in its history where a town's white population was treated in this manner. This book amounts to a wonderfully written account of state-sponsored terrorism upon our own people... make that some of our people, as is usually the case.

In terms of editing, there is one little mistake I remember finding. I wrote it down in case of a review. On page 113 where it says "Donnie and Donnie's little brother Ricky Junior", it should say "Cecil and Donnie's..."

If you remember this story from the news, this is a great in-depth study of it and is sure to be filled with more of the story than you ever knew before. Lots of references and sources in the back, too. If you don't remember this at all then it's required reading on a topic that also has implications in your own area. This book is a great starting point for inspiration to look into these Byrne-grant drug taskforces in your area.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on February 6, 2007
This is an excellent book. As the definitive treatment of the notorious cocaine stings in Tulia, Texas, it shocks our conscience by revealing how racism still plagues our society and how the unequal application of justice made famous in such books as To Kill a Mockingbird is still with us so many decades later. Add to that that it is superbly written and flows almost like a thriller, and you have an almost perfect book.

The immediate subject of Tulia is the arrest of over 40 residents of that small Texas town, almost all of them black, in a 1999 drug sting, and their subsequent treatment by the west Texas judicial system. After the arrests, the book follows two main paths. One covers the trials and convictions--despite many obvious and glaring flaws in the state's cases-- most notably, all of the arrests are made on the word of a single manifestly unreliable undercover cop with a deeply checkered past-- the defendants are railroaded into staggeringly long prison terms, often many decades for one or two alleged sales of small amounts of cocaine. The trials are at best perfunctory-- the local judge and prosecutor both lean hard to obtain convictions, and most of the state-appointed defense lawyers are incompetent or indifferent. Harper Lee never wrote anything as outrageous.

The second storyline is that of the people who take it upon themselves to free the defendants. Starting with a few brave local individuals, the effort eventually involves a determined young lawyer from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund as well as pro bono lawyers from some of the nation's top law firms. The resulting court maneuvers make for riveting and almost inspiring reading.

All of this is deftly woven together by author Nate Blakeslee, who modestly downplays his own involvement in the case--as a writer for the Texas Observer, he writes an investigative story about the Tulia cases that is later used to attract national attention. Beyond simply describing the arrests and the court cases, Blakeslee takes us into the history and culture of rural west Texas and gives us a more complicated view of the people than the basic story would suggest.

This book is highly recommended particularly for those who are interested in race relations in American history, or those who enjoy books on legal cases (such as A Civil Action), or indeed everyone who likes to read, and probably most people who don't.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 9, 2006
I found this to be riviting reading. The writer gives us a glimpse into the lives of many people in Tulia. After reading the book, we feel that we know these people. A good job of covering the whole story.

Having lived in Tulia at one time, I could picture the places in my mind. I was horrified that there could be such a miscarriage of justice in a town that I thought was a very fine place. It lets us look at the power of people: those who misuse systems and those who try to make the systems work. Thank goodness for journalists and lawyers who will not sit idly by and let people's lives be unjustly distroyed.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 17, 2005
"TULIA: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town" can be read any number of ways: as a legal thriller; a true crime tale; a sociological case study of a town and its people; an examination of the innerworkings of law enforcement across local, state and federal institutions; a hopeful tale of everyday American heroes coming to aid of victims of a renegade cop; an examination of the social and political arrangements that reinforces the interests of the powerful; as a troubling description of an increasingly repressive society reforging formerly blunt instruments of racist control into sharp new weapons of surveillance and incarceration that are guided and informed by a creed of punishment flowing out of hell and damnation readings of the Bible and law enforcement's "three strikes and you're out" ideological counterpart.

What "TULIA" shows most compellingly is the extent to which racism, which Blakeslee shows is nowadays most often expressed in economic terms, lies just below the surface in the everyday assumptions of life in small southern towns. While the town's elite knows that the "N" word is no longer acceptable in polite society, they have found ways to enforce the old status quo with a new rhetorical spin. For instance, the head of the Tulia Chamber of Commerce, Lena Barnett, speaking resentfully about county tax money being spent on court appointed attorneys for the 39 African Americans nefariously accused of dealing drugs, says, "If you can't afford insurance, then you don't go to the doctor... If you can't afford to hire a lawyer, then you go without" (page 183). This says much about what towns like Tulia and states like Texas are willing to pay to balance the scales of justice.

Blakeslee ties this observation to a larger critique of government spending, pointing out that while white Tulians resent their tax money being spent to defend the legal rights of blacks or on the poverty programs used predominantly by African Americans because of the economic discrimation they suffer under, they conveniently forget the welfare programs that are solidly in place for the white farm owners. Here's Blakeslee in one of his typically insightful examples of how the deck is stacked in favor of those citizens deemed important by the political classes:

"The total tax dollars invested in poverty programs in Swisher County, controversial thought it may be is dwarfed by the subsidies the county receives through the various federal farm programs. In 1990, farm subsidies totaled $28.7 million for Swisher County. Much of that money subsidized cotton and wheat grown for the export market, where U.S. farmers would otherwise be unable to compete with low cost operations in Latin American and Asia. The farms that keep the county alive would likely be gone in a generation if the government checks ever stopped arriving, which means that almost everybody in Swisher County, regardless of race, relies on a handout of some kind, either directly or indirectly. Most American taxpayers are unaware of the extent of such programs; if they were it would be a hard pill to swallow. Indeed, critics of farm programs have observed that in some counties (including many in the panhandle), the government could simply buy out most of the farms in the county--land, buildings, and equipment--for roughly what it will spend on subsidies over a ten- to fifteen-year period"(page 188).

Blakeslee shows elsewhere that these Federal dollars tend to find their way disproportionately into the pockets of those who have more money to begin with. Like the cocaine the 39 black Tulian's were accused of selling, it has been "stepped on" by a lot of people further up the line. In the case of the cocaine, the stepping on was done by the rogue cop who fabricated these cases so he could pocket most of the "buy money" he was provided. In the case of the government checks, the farmers keep as much of the money as they can by planting grass instead of crops under a government program designed to keep the next Dust Bowl at bay, as well as manage market prices. Day laborers, crews of cotton pickers just aren't needed for fields of grass.

For some readers, TULIA may seem to digress too far from its basic narrative thrust which is the story the unmasking of a crooked cop and the collusion of law enforcement, the courts and government in the enforcement of racism. But these "digressions" on political expediencies, on government spending, on the assumptions about human nature made by fundamentalist religion, on the vast new penal system that has been growing exponentially through politically motivated law enforcement programs and punitive, inflexible laws, all of these additional explorations are necessary to understanding the social and political arrangements that, regrettably, only prick nation's conscience on the rare occaions when concerned citizens and activists shine the light into the dark corners of America's latest, more sophisticated, disciplinary regime.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 30, 2006
A compelling account of a corrupt drug bust initiated by the panhandle town of Tulia, Texas.

To summarize, in 1999 the city of Tulia hired a police officer to go undercover and initiate drug buys. The sheriff who hired him knew that the cop had a prior record but hired him anyway. Solely on the basis of this cop's testimony and with no other evidence, the town then arrested and convicted 47 people (20 percent of the black adults in the entire town) for drug dealing. They all got ridiculously long sentences, and one kid got 361 years in prison. Ultimately the media caught wind of it and it was finally proved (3 years later) that the undercover cop (who had been named "Police Officer of the Year" and publicly congratulated for the bust by senator John Cornyn) had invented all of the charges and was also a paranoid gun nut with violent tendencies.

Terrible as it was, the thing that was hardest for me to read was not the fact that a racist cop had fabricated charges for 47 people and had them falsely imprisoned, but rather the appalling conduct of the courtroom judge as he blithely ignored the rules of evidence and criminal procedure. Basically, he was there to support his man, the district attorney, justice (and the defendants) be damned. It raises the question, does electing judges truly improve accountability??

To conclude - an excellent book. Filled with lots of courtroom detail, it clearly demonstrated the utter failure of grant-based programs for undercover narcotics task forces, as well as the war on drugs in general. Also, there were 50 pages of reference materials at the end of the book, so I feel pretty confident that the author did his homework.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on November 29, 2006
It's sometimes hard to think of books that look kindly on West Texas, from Dorothy Scarborough's "The Wind" to H. G. Bissinger's "Friday Night Lights." Add "Tulia" to the list. Its story of overzealous, small-town justice casts a harsh light of judgment on a system that used a questionable drug enforcement program to railroad citizens, most of them black, into prison. Blakeslee's 400+ pages of investigative reporting tell a compelling story of a perfect storm involving a sheriff, prosecuting attorney, and judge whose lack of due diligence and apparent racial bias get them into deep trouble with a totally unethical undercover agent. It's also a story of a handful of lawyers and concerned citizens who over a period of several years manage to enlist the support of civil libertarians and the media to expose the injustice and exonerate the defendants who had been unjustly convicted.

In the book, there is a huge cast of characters, and without the help of its index, it's sometimes hard to keep track of them all. But Blakeslee brings them all to life, and with the gifts of a good novelist, manages to maintain the threads of many different story-lines as they interweave and eventually converge on the habeas hearing that reveals the actual nature of events leading to the false arrests. Finally, the book reveals to a degree some of the circumstances contributing to the large population of ethnic minorities in the nation's prisons, and it provides evidence to support arguments that the proper focus of civil rights legislation today is the judicial system itself.
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