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Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town Hardcover – September 26, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Those familiar with the travesty of justice that led to multiple bogus drug arrests in the small Texas town of Tulia only from newspaper accounts will be outraged anew at this eye-opening narrative that bears comparison to such courtroom and litigation classics as A Civil Action. This devastating indictment of the toll taken by the war on drugs, viewed through the prism of one small community, is a masterpiece of true crime writing. Award-winning reporter Blakeslee broke the story for the Texas Observer in 2000 and has produced a definitive account, deftly weaving the history of the growth and decline of Tulia with the stories of those caught up in the racist frame by narcotics officer Tom Coleman. The defendants, their families and their attorneys come across as three-dimensional individuals, consistently engaging the reader despite the wealth of details and the intricacies of the appellate process. Vanita Gupta, the young defense lawyer fresh from law school who made the NAACP Legal Defense Fund take notice with her dedication, is especially memorable. As with Errol Morris's film exposing corrupt Texas law-enforcement, The Thin Blue Line, this haunting work will leave many wondering how many other Tulias there are out there. (Oct. 4)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From Bookmarks Magazine
"No novelist could have made up such an account and been deemed credible," writes the San Francisco Chronicle. Yet every detail in Tulia is true. Expertly researched and written, Tulia offers a shocking portrait of racial profiling and bigotry in rural America. In writing this tale, Blakeslee never fails to put the defendants stories in the context of black-white race relations, drug-enforcement task forces, and corrupt police forces. Nor (to the chagrin of a few critics, who found the characters hard to follow) does he omit a single defendant or lawyer involved in the case. Coleman in particular comes off as an incompetent, despicable man unable to live up to his fathers reputation as a respected Texas Ranger. Though depressing, Tulia is ultimately a story of triumph. Read the bookor wait for the film.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
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Top Customer Reviews
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!
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.