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(Oct 05, 2009)
Through its scrupulous investigation of a landmark case, Tulia, Texas uncovers the deep-rooted assumptions about race and crime that still permeate our society and undermines our justice system. The film convincingly shows how the 'war on drugs' has become a war on due process, waged against African Americans. Today America has the largest prison population in the world; in some states as much as 15 percent of the black male population is incarcerated. Tulia, Texas shows one reason why. The film tells the story from multiple points of view, presenting the evidence in the order in which it came to light, putting viewers in the same position as the jury, judging the credibility of the prosecution's case. Then, as new facts surface after the trial, the audience is forced to question its own beliefs about the criminal justice system and the disproportionate number of African Americans it convicts. Tulia appears to be a typical American small town located in the Texas Panhandle. Vacant storefronts line a Main Street straight out of the 1950's, suggesting that Tulia has been left behind by the tidal economic and cultural changes of the past fifty years. It has a small African American community, known as "Black Town", originally made up of agricultural laborers, since displaced by modernization. Many local black youth are unemployed; good jobs are still closed to them and some have turned to drugs. But it was only when drug use was perceived to have "crossed the tracks" to white neighborhoods that Tulia's civic leaders became alarmed. Here, as throughout the country, black youth became scapegoats for simmering white anxiety over social forces beyond their control and comprehension. In response to drug hysteria fanned by the media and politicians, Tulia's sheriff called in a federally trained undercover agent, Tom Coleman, to conduct a sting operation. In a July 1999 dawn raid, local law enforcement rounded up dozens of people in Tulia and threw them behind bars. Of the 46 arrested, 39 of them were black, all charged with selling Coleman cocaine. Eight were prosecuted, found guilty and sentenced to unusually stiff jail terms of twenty to ninety-nine years. The rest, fearing similar punishment, agreed to plea bargains. Most had been represented by ill-prepared court appointed attorneys; the trials were quick and perfunctory; the juries convicted based on the time-honored Texas tradition of accepting the uncorroborated testimony of a law enforcement officer as proof of guilt. And there matters would have stood had it not been for a determined group of townspeople, and a crusading Amarillo defense attorney, Jeff Blackburn, who decided to take a closer look at the evidence. He discovered numerous inconsistencies in Coleman's investigation: physical descriptions of perpetrators bore no resemblance to the actual defendants, crimes were allegedly committed on days Coleman was off-duty, and sales were reported at times when defendants were at work or out of town. As discrepancies started to leak out, the case attracted national media attention; In response, a multi-racial coalition, the "Friends of Justice," was formed in Tulia. Soon, Blackburn was joined by attorneys from the NAACP and ACLU who helped win a hearing before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to present new evidence on behalf of several defendants. The lawyers also revealed the shocking discovery that Coleman himself had a criminal record. As a result of the revelations about Coleman, all the defendants were eventually set free and pardoned by the Texas governor. Neither the local sheriff nor regional narcotics officials have been held accountable for hiring Coleman and robbing so many innocent people of years of their lives. The underlying prejudices and policies that made the real crimes of Tulia possible are still widespread in American society. Tulia, Texas challenges viewers to question the deep ties between race, poverty and the criminal justice system in this country.