Everyone here is willing to go on with life, if the men and women that were released choose to become a part of the community again and become productive citizens.
—Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart
“Sometimes, it was hard for Tom to break character.” Mimi McBroom is describing her husband Tom Coleman’s work as an undercover narcotics agent, difficult and often dangerous work. As Coleman puts it, he was particularly suited to this work, seeing as his father was an admired Texas Ranger. When, in 1999, he was hired by Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart to conduct an operation under the auspices of the Panhandle Regional Drug Task Force, Coleman came prepared. Adopting “a whole new identification,” with new driver’s license and birth certificate, he became “T.J. Dawson,” a man who was “more of the rock n roll, kind of didn’t give a damn, kick-ass, buy some dope, drive fast, and try to get the trust of people,” Coleman says. “That’s who T.J. was and that’s who I was.”
Indeed. As recounted in Tulia Texas, Coleman “got the trust of” not only the department who hired him, but also, as he puts it, the citizens of “a small, quiet, little town in the panhandle of Texas that got sick and tired of the dope dealers and they hired me and I stood up for ‘em.” To do so, Coleman bought drugs from local dealers for months, an investigation that led to the arrests of 46 other citizens. In a population of 5,117, this number constitutes a large percentage. According to Coleman and the men who hired him, the fact that these criminals were mostly black (39 of the 46) was coincidental. Coleman was named Texas Lawman of the Year.
But for those who were arrested and convicted, as well as their families and the lawyers who took up their cases, the numbers indicated a bias—in the operation, and more broadly, in Swisher County. These multiple stories are recounted in Cassandra Herrman and Kelly Whalen’s documentary, which airs tonight as part of PBS’ Independent Lens. From its start, the film lays out discrepancies in perspectives and effects. Coleman insists that his operation, funded by the federal Narcotics Task Force, reaped benefits, making Tulia’s sidewalks and schoolyards a little bit safer. In this, it fulfilled the mandate laid down in 1988 by Ronald Reagan, who described the Anti-Drug Abuse Act as giving “a new sword and shield to those whose job it is to eliminate from America’s streets and towns the scourge of illicit drugs” (footage of this announcement includes on the stage Nancy, in whose “honor” he signed the act). By contrast, Amarillo attorney Jeff Blackburn says the operation represents the worst tendencies of law enforcement in Texas, where, he observes, “It has always been the law that you can convict a person solely and strictly on the uncorroborated, unbacked-up word of one cop. And it comes down to whether his word is going to be taken by a jury and that’s it.”
In the case of Tulia, this word was Coleman’s. That was a problem.
Seated in a rocking chair, Gary Gardner remembers his first efforts to raise questions about the arrests. “I was the first white guy that said in public, ‘This is wrong,’” he says. “What I took offense at was the DA and the sheriff, they was walking around and beating themselves on the chest like Tarzan.” At the same time, Freddie Brookins, Sr., father of one of the young men arrested, recalls feeling appalled by another aspect of the operation’s public performance: while the film shows local TV news coverage of the arrests, he says, “They brought these people in, their hair wasn’t combed, they weren’t dressed. Why a person would drag you out of bed, expose you indecent like that before a camera, is beyond me. It was really unreal.”
And yet, of course, it was all too real. Blackburn describes the initial legal process as he perceived it, after he started working on appeals: “Really quick trials, really bad lawyers appointed to them, no investigation by the defense whatsoever, pleas of guilty that are clearly because people were scared to get 90 years, so they’ll take 10.” The film details the case of 22-year-old Freddie Brookins Jr., who refused to plead guilty and was sentenced to 20 years. He describes the jury that convicted him, whose members included his Little Dibbler basketball coach and Little League coach. “They knew me,” Brookins says. And yet they took the newcomer Coleman’s word over his.
As detailed in Nate Blakeslee’s Austin Chronicle article, “Color of Justice,” the Tulia case drew national attention, including an investigation by the NAACP. As discrepancies in Coleman’s notes and his own past came to light, Swisher Counter officials tried at first to cover up their errors, then, under pressure of a media campaign, wherein defense attorneys publicized the outrages of the case via CNN and Bill O’Reilly, had to bring Coleman himself to court on perjury charges. As Tulia, Texas follows the many turns of the case, from the initial convictions to investigations of Coleman, it becomes a cautionary tale (as he leaves the courtroom following his own conviction, the camera lens is literally flecked with raindrops, marking his sad descent).
Again and again, Coleman showed he was able to “get the trust” of many, from sheriffs and deputies to prosecutors and jurors. While it’s clear now that this trust was profoundly misplaced, the film closes on interviews with Tulia citizens that indicate the context for it. Coleman’s trial, one diner customer declares, “looked like the Barnum & Bailey Circus down there. Those lawyers, I don’t think they cared about the people they helped get out of prison and stuff. They wanted to embarrass the county, embarrass the drug enforcement people.” Sooner or later, he and his friends agree, the wrongly convicted and newly released Tulia citizens will be back in jail.