TULIA, Texas -- The drug convictions of 38 mostly black defendants from a farm town in the Texas Panhandle should be thrown out because they were based on questionable testimony from a single undercover agent accused of racial prejudice, a judge said Tuesday.
Retired state District Judge Ron Chapman urged the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to grant new trials to everyone convicted in a case that has prompted investigations by the Justice Department and Texas attorney general.
"It is stipulated by all parties and approved by the court that Tom Coleman is simply not a credible witness under oath," Chapman said of the agent.
The case involved 1999 cocaine busts in this predominantly white town of 5,000 people. Coleman, 43, claimed he bought drugs from the defendants during an 18-month investigation in which he worked alone and used no audio or video surveillance.
But no drugs were found and little or no corroborating evidence was introduced at trial. The Texas American Civil Liberties Union suggested discrimination was behind the arrests, intended to cleanse Tulia of its black population. Coleman is white.
Coleman was not in the courthouse when the judge announced his recommendation.
Mattie White said she was elated. Four of her children were arrested and charged and two remain in prison.
"That's the best step I ever heard," she said. "We've been praying for this for four years, and we haven't ever given up."
Lawyer Jeff Blackburn, who represents two of the four men whose arrests were examined in the hearing, predicted Chapman's recommendation would carry considerable weight with the appellate court.
"This is wonderful news, though nothing is final as of yet," said Vanita Gupta, an attorney with the NAACP. "But we are very pleased that Tom Coleman's word can't be the basis of any standing conviction."
A prosecutor said flatly there will be no more trials.
"If the (appeals court) sends them back, we'll dismiss them," said Rod Hobson, a special prosecutor assigned to assist Swisher County during court-ordered hearings. "It would be foolish for us to go forward."
On July 23, 1999, a drug task force pulled suspects from their beds and paraded them, still in their nightclothes, across the courthouse lawn in front of television cameras.
In all, 46 people were arrested, 39 of them black. Thirteen are still in prison and others served time or were placed on probation.
Coleman no longer works in law enforcement or for Swisher County.
The appeals court had ordered the lower court to determine whether Jason J. Williams, Christopher E. Jackson, Freddie Brookins Jr. and Joe Moore were convicted solely on Coleman's word.
The court also wanted to know whether prosecutors had failed to turn over information from Coleman's background that might have cast doubt on his testimony.
Law enforcement witnesses testified that he regularly used a racial epithet and had disciplinary problems. Coleman said the epithet was a greeting that he and his friends used.
Coleman was the main witness at the hearing. He contradicted himself several times on the stand, blamed work-related problems on marital trouble and denied allegations that he was a thief and a liar.
One of his supervisors with the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force, Lt. Michael Amos, testified that Coleman had "an exceptional talent at being an undercover officer."
But Amos acknowledged that Coleman's previous employers had told his staff Coleman was unprofessional, needed constant supervision and was a discipline problem.