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Prisoners Released After Race-Based Police Work Exposed

Aired June 16, 2003 - 19:12   ET


I don't know if you've been following the story out of Texas. Four years after their arrest, 11 African-Americans and one white man walked free from prison today. And we specified the race because race was very much at issue in this case.

It involved dozens of people arrested on drug charges. It involved an undercover lawman later indicted on perjury charges. And it devastated the small town of Tulia, Texas, as CNN's Ed Lavandera reports.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): On July 23, 1999, a high profile drug sweep in Tulia, Texas, rounded up 46 alleged drug dealers. Almost everyone arrested that day was African-American, 10 percent of the town's black population.

Seven of the cases were dropped. The rest of the accused ended up in jail or on probation. But almost four years later, the cases are crumbling apart.

JEFF BLACKBURN, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: What we've got here is a complete system breakdown, a breakdown of the defense function, a breakdown of the prosecution function, and a breakdown of the whole judicial system.

LAVANDERA: Allegations of racist motivations, shady evidence and questionable police work put the Tulia cases in the national spotlight.

On Monday, a dozen of the Tulia defendants were released on bond while their cases are reviewed by the Texas court of criminal appeals and the Texas parole board.

JOE MOORE, TULIA DEFENDANT: I'm doing good. I'm doing good now. And I want to enjoy it. My lawyers and everything, just go on with my life.

LAVANDERA: They were imprisoned on the word of undercover officer Tom Coleman. At the trials, Coleman presented little evidence, few notes, no surveillance video or wiretaps. Now after four years, a Texas judge who has studied the cases declared Coleman, quote, "the most devious, non-responsive law enforcement officer this court has seen." Coleman's attorney tells CNN the former undercover officer still stands behind the work he did on these cases, and he thinks releasing these inmates just means more drug dealers will be turned to Tulia's streets.

TOM COLEMAN, UNDERCOVER OFFICER: I believe we did everything right. Everything. And I don't think there is not anybody in jail that don't deserve to be there. Or on probation.

LAVANDERA (on camera): There are four Tulia defendants still in prison, and lawyers say they're still working to get them out. But the Tulia 46, as they've become known, say they won't stop fighting until all of their names have been cleared of these drug charges. But after four years of fighting, they're just excited to finally get one day to celebrate.

Ed Lavandera, CNN, Tulia, Texas.


COOPER: For more on this, joining us now, Freddie Brookins Jr., one of the 12 men who walked free today. He spent three and a half years in prison out of a 20-year sentence for delivering cocaine. Also with us, Vanita Gupta, assistant council for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Appreciate both of you joining us. Freddie, I want to start off with you. Three and a half years in prison. Did you ever think this day would come?

FREEDIE BROOKINS JR., RELEASED FROM PRISON: Yes, I believed the day would come. I just didn't know what day it would come.

COOPER: Tell us about the day you were taken into custody. I mean, this guy had no surveillance tapes, his testimony as this judge saying, incredibly questionable. No drugs were found, no drug paraphernalia. Did you know what was going on?

BROOKINS: No, sir. I really still don't know what's really going on with that.

COOPER: Because the roundup, they -- my understanding is he arrested or in the sweep they arrested 10 percent of the black population of this town.

COOPER: Yes, sir.

COOPER: Vanita, tell me a little bit about what went on what came out in the trial regarding this lawman, Tom Coleman.

VANITA GUPTA, ASST. COUNSEL, NAACP: What came out basically was that Tom Coleman had a long history of being completely untrustworthy, being racially biased in previous law enforcement jobs.

But it also came out that Tom Coleman had been arrested for theft and abuse of official capacity while working in Tulia during the 18 months that he spent here allegedly making buys from folks like Freddie Brookins.

And it also just came out that Tom Coleman was negligently supervised. He was working for folks who actually knew that -- about his past, who should have at least discovered that when they hired him, who let him go loose in this community.

COOPER: Because this guy was basically -- this man, this officer was basically an itinerant lawman. He was hired specifically for this investigation. I think the investigation took him a couple of months before these arrests were made. So he's not someone from this town, he's not someone who has worked in this town prior to this. He was just brought in for this, is that correct?

GUPTA: That's right. I mean, in Texas they're known as gypsy cops. And you know, you would imagine that if somebody was coming totally from the outside, that he would be very carefully screened at a hiring, you know, at the hiring stage.

At the hiring stage, any discussion or conversation with any previous law enforcement supervisor of Tom Coleman's would have quickly revealed the kind of man that he actually was. Instead that didn't happen. This man was let loose into this community and created the biggest tragedy, I think, of recent times. And that's...

COOPER: I'm sorry. Let me jump in here. Freddie, if I could ask you, there have been a lot of allegations about the role that race played in all of this. As we said, the majority, by and large, of the people arrested were African-Americans, some 10 percent of the African-American community in this town.

Do you think race was a major factor?

BROOKINS: Yes, sir, I do believe that race was a factor for the fact that, you know, a lot of people in this town, you know, have racial -- I mean, you know, like a -- they are the racists, you know. So I really feel like race was a factor in this.

COOPER: Vanita, how has the community -- you've been working in this community now for awhile. How has the community reacted to this?

I read a couple of articles where some people were very supportive of getting these men out of jail. Others are kind of saying, "Well, you know things have been a little bit calmer. There is a problem with crack in the town and it seems calmer since some of these people have been incarcerated."

GUPTA: You know, what's difficult to swallow about some of the more negative reactions about seeing folks released is that these folks were railroaded in their trials. There was little to no evidence presented at all and jurors convicted -- these are folks living in the town, convicted on little to no evidence at all. And it was, you know, racist is all over this case. There wasn't a single African-American on any of the juries.

There is folks -- it's a very painful and raw issue in this town still today. And it's going to take some time to heal. COOPER: That's true.

GUPTA: And it may be that folks just can't reconcile the fact that what happened in this town was a travesty of justice, but that's indeed what it was.

COOPER: Freddie, my final question to you. What do you do now? Where do you go from here? How do you try to rebuild your life the last three and a half years?

BROOKINS: Well, only way I can rebuild my life is to start, you know, where I left off at. But everything will work out OK.

COOPER: All right, well, appreciate you joining us tonight, Freddie Brookins Jr. and Vanita Gupta. Thank you very much. It's an unbelievable story. Appreciate you coming on...

GUPTA: Thank you.

BROOKINS: Thank you.

COOPER: ... to tell us about it. Thank you.


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