Blow for Injustice

The scandal of Tulia is the scandal of the war on drugs.

Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town, by Nate Blakeslee, New York: PublicAffairs, 450 pages, $26.95

On July 23, 1999, Billy Don Wafer was arrested along with 45 other residents of Tulia, Texas, in a drug sting operation that would eventually attract nationwide attention. At the time of his arrest, Wafer, a warehouse foreman in his early 40s with a wife and two children, had nearly completed a 10-year probation sentence for marijuana possession, and if his probation was revoked he’d receive the full 10-year prison sentence. That decision would be made by a judge rather than a jury, in a hearing where the prosecution would have to prove its case by “a preponderance of the evidence” instead of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the standard for full-blown criminal trials. “By the time a revocation reaches the hearing stage,” Nate Blakeslee writes in Tulia, his absorbing, suspenseful account of the sting and its aftermath, “it is usually too late for the defendant.”

The outlook for Wafer at his February 2000 hearing seemed especially bleak in light of what had happened to the four Tulia defendants who had already been tried. Like Wafer, each was accused of selling cocaine powder to an undercover cop named Tom Coleman, based on no evidence except his word. There were no videotapes, no audio recordings, no corroborating witnesses, no currency with prerecorded serial numbers, no fingerprints on the bags of cocaine. No drugs had been found in the defendants’ homes (or in the homes of anyone else arrested that day). Coleman’s written reports were sketchy, his memory of the transactions sketchier. Yet all four defendants had been convicted, receiving jury sentences totaling 516 years, for an average of 129 years each.

Coleman claimed he had made a deal on the morning of January 18, 1999, to buy an eightball of cocaine (about 3.5 grams, the weight of a few paper clips) from Wafer, who had arranged for someone else to deliver it later that day. Time cards and testimony from Wafer’s boss indicated he was working at the time of the alleged deal, but his boss conceded Wafer sometimes left work during the day to do personal or job-related errands. “Like the other cases,” Blakeslee writes, “the contest basically came down to a swearing match between Coleman and the defendant.”

Fortunately for Wafer, his lawyer had uncovered information about Coleman that cast serious doubt on his credibility. He had a rocky work history, having abruptly left two law enforcement jobs and skipped town, leaving behind thousands of dollars in debt. His former co-workers described him as an inveterate liar. The local sheriff, who participated in hiring Coleman to work for a federally funded, multi-county drug task force, had arrested him in the middle of the Tulia operation for stealing gasoline from the government at his previous job—a fact prosecutors had failed to disclose.

Although the judge at Wafer’s hearing knew this information from a motion Wafer’s lawyer had filed in another case, he had decided not to let the jury in that case hear about the arrest because it had not resulted in a conviction. (The theft charge was dropped after Coleman paid $6,900 in restitution for the debts he owed.) But at the revocation hearing Coleman lied under oath, saying, “I’ve never been arrested or charged for nothing except a traffic ticket way back when I was a kid.” The judge decided not to revoke Wafer’s probation.

Given the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, the judge must have concluded that Coleman probably had lied or somehow made a mistake about buying cocaine from Wafer. (Strictly speaking, the judge could have believed there was a 50 percent chance Coleman was either a liar or a bumbling idiot.) Yet after Wafer’s hearing, nearly 30 more people, some in cases overseen by the same judge, were convicted of selling Coleman cocaine based on his say-so or pleaded guilty after seeing the stiff sentences that were coming down. Some defense attorneys didn’t know about Coleman’s shady past, while others couldn’t persuade judges to admit the information in court. It took three more years before public outrage about the weakness of these cases led Gov. Rick Perry to pardon most of the Tulia defendants who were still behind bars.

The frustration of justice delayed permeates Tulia, which is nevertheless a surprisingly fast read for a book of its length. Blakeslee, the journalist who broke the story of Coleman’s questionable reliability in The Texas Observer, suggests several reasons for the delay, including lazy defense attorneys, stubborn prosecutors, and hard-assed judges. While national press coverage created an impression of a racist conspiracy to railroad innocent blacks, Blakeslee’s richly detailed account shows the truth was both more complicated and simpler. Not all of the defendants were innocent of the charges against them, but all of them were innocent in the sense that they did nothing to deserve the treatment they received. Tulia demands our attention not because the events there were so unusual but because they dramatically illustrate the injustices routinely inflicted by the war on drugs, which results in 1.7 million arrests a year and keeps half a million Americans behind bars for failing to comply with an arbitrary set of pharmacological preferences.

Although race appears in Blakeslee’s subtitle, its role in these cases is debatable. In an overwhelmingly white town with a population of 5,000, all but half a dozen of the 46 suspects were black, representing one-tenth of Tulia’s black residents. The bust, in which white cops dragged sleepy, half-dressed blacks from their beds before dawn, vividly symbolized the disproportionate racial impact of the war on drugs. Although the overall numbers are not quite as lopsided as they were in the Tulia sting, there’s no denying that blacks, who are no more likely than whites to use illegal drugs, are overrepresented among drug offenders who get arrested and go to prison: More than 60 percent of imprisoned drug offenders are black, five times the percentage of blacks in the U.S. population. There’s also no denying the racist roots of drug prohibition, which was openly aimed at intoxicants associated with blacks, Mexicans, and Chinese. Listening to modern fears about black crackheads, one is reminded of the warnings about “cocaine niggers” heard in the run-up to the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914.

Still, it’s worth remembering that black politicians and community leaders were among the loudest voices demanding tough action to suppress the crack trade in the 1980s. The response included a bizarre system of federal penalties that treats one gram of crack the same as 100 grams of cocaine powder, even though these are different forms of the same drug. This disparate treatment of smokable and snortable cocaine (which many states, not including Texas, imitated) imposes harsh sentences on low-level crack dealers, who are overwhelmingly black.

Although the intent of the sentencing laws was not racist, their impact has been so racially skewed that it’s not hard to see how people might get that impression. Likewise, the overrepresentation of young black men among the petty street dealers who make easy targets for police may have more to do with class than race, but the numbers still should trouble anyone who believes in equal treatment under the law.

Because of these background concerns about the racial implications of the war on drugs, the Tulia cases eventually received wide attention, rousing the ire of New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, attracting coverage by major media outlets, and inspiring the efforts of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which enlisted the pro bono assistance of experienced lawyers from big-time law firms. All that attention, in turn, put pressure on Texas politicians in a way that a racially neutral story would not.

Race may have been a factor in some aspects of the Tulia affair, such as reactions to the arrests in the local press and among the town’s white residents. But in the May 2005 issue of D magazine, Dallas TV journalist Todd Bensman makes a pretty persuasive case that Coleman himself was not motivated by racism. (Blakeslee suggests he was but draws no firm conclusions on this score, perhaps hampered by the fact that Coleman would not talk to him after his initial exposé in The Texas Observer.) According to Bensman, Tulia’s drug scene was segregated by race, and Coleman made an effort to penetrate the white and Hispanic subgroups before turning to the black community, where he was more successful—a fact that itself tends to undermine the racism charge. (No one seems to dispute that Coleman, whose one real talent for police work was ingratiating himself with his targets, got along well with blacks in Tulia while he was working undercover, to such a degree that his claim of using the word nigger as a term of endearment rather than an epithet is more plausible than Blakeslee seems to think.) In other undercover investigations, Coleman’s targets were overwhelmingly white. After interviewing Coleman and considering his behavior on and off the job, Bensman concludes he’s no racist. “At worst,” Bensman writes, “he’s an absent-minded lunkhead who was unqualified to do the job.”

That should have been bad enough to generate outrage, but the news media demanded a more compelling story. Alan Bean, one of the local white activists who fought to free the Tulia 46, tells Bensman: “Too many reporters wanted to write about hot topics such as racist conspiracies, racist jurors, and racist police officers instead of focusing on dull matters like the faulty mechanics of the Coleman operation. That was the story The New York Times wanted to tell. Bob Herbert wanted to show that Tulia was a nasty little pestilent racist community in George Bush’s home state.”

If this story is not really about racism, what is it about? To a large extent, it is about negligence compounded by pigheadedness, cowardice, and callousness. It eventually came out, Blakeslee notes, that Coleman’s supervisor at his previous job had told an Amarillo police sergeant who was involved in hiring him for the drug task force “that Coleman was a discipline problem, that he was ‘too gung ho,’ that he had been accused of kidnapping his son in a custody battle, that he had walked off the job on a sheriff in the panhandle, and—worst of all—that he had…‘possible mental problems.’ ” But the cops in charge of the task force hired him anyway, kept him on after his arrest, and later refused to admit they had made a mistake. The district attorney, having linked his reputation to Coleman’s by relying so heavily on him to prosecute these cases, likewise had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the conclusion that Coleman could not be trusted.

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