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Customer Reviews

4.1 out of 5 stars
Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town
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on November 5, 2014
This is a story of America's huge but little-covered rural drug war. It's the story of one nation's criminal justice system, its biases, and the convolution that keeps most poor defendants from the slightest hope of due process.

It is also one of the most engaging books I have ever opened.

My sole complaint is that the author ignores Associated Press style where, in my mind, he shouldn't (as a copy editor, I cringed every time "over" appeared in place of "more than" - often multiple times per page). But of all I've ever read more rigorous in grammatical style, I can think of precious little to compete with this volume for deep reporting or genuine importance. Or, for that matter, for the ability to make me laugh out loud even in the face of systematic debasement.

I recommend this book unequivocally. Everyone should read it.


The truth is, it's unusual as a true story only for the in-depth coverage it has received (particularly in this book, a stellar piece of reporting) and the fact that it has a happier ending than most.

It's the story of a cop who lied to make a name for himself. Of a church-leader-cum-sheriff who covered up for him. Of a drunk-driving DA who made his career prosecuting DWIs, who withheld critical evidence from the defense and then lied about it in open court. Of a judge, once an idealistic defense attorney, who stacked the deck against a fair trial. Of great men like Paul Holloway, a court-appointed defender with enough faith in the system to do his job on a level usually reserved for television attorneys - enough faith, that is, to be broken when the system proved too corrupt to care. Of Freddie Brookins Sr., who told his son it was wrong to lie: If he was innocent, he shouldn't take a deal. (Consequently, Freddie Jr. was sentenced to 20 in years prison.) Of Gary Gardner, a diabetic farmer self-taught in the law, an old-timer who considered the n-word normal parlance but who spent thousands of dollars and countless hours fighting for the rights of wrongly convicted African-Americans.

It is the story, ultimately, of dozens of men and women convicted based on demonstrable lies. Of human beings sent to prison with sentences that ranged to 361 years. Of two defendants who remained in prison until 2011, despite the fact that the case against them was proven, in court, to be nonsense in 2003.
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on October 3, 2006
Nate Blakeslee's "Tulia" tells the story of the small town of Tulia, Texas, where one white man was able to arrest over forty black men (and women) with almost no evidence and no documentation of their alleged crimes.

What little evidence the arresting officer did have was suspicious and didn't match the criminal histories of the accused; for instance, most of the defendants were arrested for selling powdered cocaine, when those that were drug users did crack.

In addition to all of the above, the arresting officer was arrested himself--for theft--right in the middle of his "deep cover" investigation. It later turned out that he had also been a card-carrying member of the KKK, had been chastised by his department for frequently using racial slurs, had kidnapped his child, run out on large debts, stolen gas, and much more.

Over time, it became apparent that he had taken the money given to him to buy drugs as an undercover agent, used the money to pay off his outstanding debts, cut some cocaine with baking soda, and claimed that he got the cocaine from over forty different dealers in the same little town.

Many of the people he accused received life sentences in court hearings that seemed as ethically questionable as the officer's personal methods, and it wasn't until a few concerned locals, some good reporters, and some saintly pro bono lawyers got involved, that the defendants finally got a truly just chance to redeem themselves--and to put their accuser and his crowd on trial themselves.

The story of "Tulia" is an amazing one. It reads like pulp fiction, although its heroes and villains are never as black and white. For instance, the victims in the story are, in many cases, drug users, and in some cases ended up back in prison soon after, for similar charges.

The whole story asks valid questions of the War on Drugs, but--aside from suggesting fairness and honesty--doesn't offer much in the way of valid solutions. Should drugs just be legal? Is that really a better way to live life? Will that make for a better society?

I'd have to answer "No" to that one, but I would say that removing officers like the one in this book would be a good start in the right direction.

This book itself, and the attention it gives the issue, is a good start of its own.
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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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on April 4, 2015
Excellent book about a tragic tale from Texas. There are some heroes and villains in this book and you will come away with great admiration for the heroes and contempt for the villains. It's a troubling story about a justice system gone wrong with some of the main players in the system not giving a damn.
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on July 4, 2011
Overall Assessment:

Nate Blakeselee put rigorous and heartfelt effort into this account of a disturbingly recent example of American justice gone bad. Some people might really enjoy the detailed family histories of the various individuals involved and how these vignettes are woven into the extensive discussion of Tulia's history, but in my opinion less would have been more. These discussions could have been just as informative with more disciplined editing. Still, the investigative work was admirable and compelling and the story gut wrenching and at times downright enraging. *Tulia* is a worthy read, and I have assigned it as the optional "A-track" assignment for my upcoming summer course on race and crime.

Some crucial points:

Other reviewers have done a nice job summarizing the basic thrust of the book. For me it was helpful to ponder its connection to some of the larger issues regarding American culture and the justice system that were at most only vaguely alluded to by Blakeslee, who is a journalist and not a socialist. For those who might be interested, they are:

* The historic roots of race and class divisions: the way we treat out minorities now is clearly a cultural hangover of how we treated them in the past.

* "Conflict theory" interpretations of the behavior of law: Tulia's well connected whites, when struggling with substance abuse, were able to skirt legal sanctions for years even after multiple transgressions. Black offenders would often receive essentially life sentences for minor offenses. There is also circumstantial evidence in Tulia that violating accepted race-sex boundaries could attract especially aggressive attention from law enforcement and the community writ large.

* The grotesque results of the "tough on crime" meme: Cocksure law enforcement officials and prosecutors get locked into a kickass mindset that tramples rights and lives, and once committed, find themselves politically frozen against any redress for their victims. In the case of Tulia this was sickening at times.

* The dysfunctional "blue code" of silence that enabled a twisted, malignant creep like Tom Coleman to be passed across Texas law enforcement agencies like a nasty rash until he ended up working in Tulia. As part of the Amarillo-based narcotics task force he began his reign of terror that culminated in the contrived "sting" of numerous, mostly black residents, based on falsified testimony and phony evidence.

* How the Tulia episode was part of the larger dysfunction of America's obscene and failed "war on drugs", in which low-level offenders (or innocents) are pounced on by narcotics task forces to jack up arrest numbers. The result in Texas (and the rest of the nation) is that disproportionately minority offenders are treated as commodities sustaining careers, egos, and law enforcement budgets but having no effect on drug use levels.

* Illustrating the grim reality of the justice system: In popular discourse we lament that criminals get off on "loop holes" or with "wrist slaps", when in fact on average everything is stacked against the accused/convicted--especially the poor and minority ones stuck with indigent "defense" counsel. Conversely, it took the powerhouse team spearheaded by Legal Defense Fund Lawyer Vanita Gupta, aided by various fortuitous breaks and blunders by Tulia officials, to unravel the dark truth and bring a modicum of justice to the victims. It is disturbing to ponder how many Tulia's have not been uncovered yet.

(It makes it ironic that I am publishing this on the 4th of July.)
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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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on December 4, 2016
I am very interested in this event, liked the writing style, and found much of it engaging. Still it was very long and had more detail than I needed so I skimmed quite a bit of it.
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on September 1, 2016
An account of police corruption that beggars belief but it is true.
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on November 30, 2010
Found out a lot about Texas Rangers, Sheriffs, Attorneys, and other supposedly "good guys," the ones wearing the white hats. To my dismay, I discovered how corrupt they were! Even the CURRENT sheriff of Midland, Texas. Wow! What an expose. Too bad the local people weren't given the opportunity to know about this book by Blakeslee back in the 1990s. Corruption rains/reigns in Texas!
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on November 20, 2017
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