Travesty in Tulia, Texas: Frame-up of 38 Innocent People Orchestrated by a County Sheriff, Prosecutor and Judge

By Hans Sherrer


On July 23, 1999, the small town of Tulia, Texas was rocked by the arrest of 43 people on drug charges. Thirty-eight of those men and women were convicted and given sentences of up to 434 years in prison. Stymied in efforts to get the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to take a serious look at irregularities in the cases, a defense attorney enlisted the aid of the media to publicize the lack of evidence any of the defendants were guilty. On April 1, 2003, a judge appointed to preside over a special evidentiary hearing announced he would recommend that the appeals court vacate the convictions. While that court was considering the cases, on July 30th the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole recommended that Governor Rick Perry pardon the 35 defendants eligible for executive clemency. On August 22, 2003 Governor Perry pardoned those 35 defendants.

Tulia’s legally sanctioned mob lynchings in broad daylight

Tulia is a sleepy town of 5,000 in the Texas panhandle. The county seat of Swisher County, the town is so impoverished that it has neither a fast-food restaurant nor a nightclub. 1

With limited law enforcement experience and a two-week DEA crash course in undercover work under his belt, Tom Coleman was hired in January 1998 by the Swisher County Sheriff’s Department to conduct an undercover investigation into local drug dealing. 2 Eighteen months later that investigation culminated with the very public arrest of 43 people in Tulia in the early morning hours of July 23, 1999. Roused from their beds, some of the people were not permitted to dress before being filmed by television crews as they were led from their homes to waiting police cars – one man was only clad in his underpants. 3 All but one of the people was accused of selling Tom Coleman less than $200 worth of powder cocaine (less than 3.5 grams) – which is a second-degree felony punishable under Texas law by up to 20 years in prison. 4 However, many of the people were accused of selling Coleman the drugs within 1,000 feet of a school or public park, which enhances the offense to a first-degree felony punishable by life in prison. 5

Protesting their innocence, the defendants at first fought the charges by going to trial. Joe Moore, a hog farmer in his 60s was the first defendant. He was convicted and given the draconian prison sentence of 99 years in prison. The second conviction resulted in an ungodly sentence of 434 years for William Love. 6 The next six defendants who went to trial were given prison sentences of 12, 20, 20, 25, 40, 45 and 60 years. 7 Not wanting to spend their most productive years, if not the remainder of their life in prison, only three more defendants went to trial. The rest entered plea bargains for sentences ranging from probation to 18 years in prison. 8 A total of 38 people were convicted: 11 after a trial and 27 by a plea bargain. Twenty-two defendants were sentenced to prison and 16 were given probation.

Tom Coleman was a hero to many Tulia residents. The mayor, Boyd Vaughn, spoke for many people when he said of the nearly four-dozen indicted men and women: “These are people that aren't real energetic, don't have jobs, don't work real hard. You see them hanging around all the time.” 9 A woman employed by the school system, who later was a juror in one case said of the prosecutions, “Well, good: it's about time.” 10 A local businessman echoed those sentiments when he said: “Drugs were getting bad. Our town as a whole sort of told the sheriff, ‘We need to clean up these drugs.’ And he's been doing a fine job of it, I think.” 11 The Tulia Sentinel editorialized that the arrested people were “scum bags.” 12

The fruits of Tom Coleman’s investigation were also recognized by his law enforcement peers. He was selected as the Texas Department of Public Safety’s 1999 Outstanding Lawman of the Year. The award was presented to Coleman by the state attorney general. 13

The Tulia prosecutions, however, didn’t fade away to be forgotten for a number of compelling reasons:

In spite of the outrageous circumstances surrounding the dismissed cases, the other thirty-eight defendants, the Tulia Thirty-Eight, weren’t able to produce irrefutable evidence that Coleman erred.

Publicity About The Tulia Convictions Leads To An Evidentiary Hearing

Public exposure of the flimsy foundation underlying the Tulia convictions began on June 23, 2000, when The Texas Observer published an 8,000 word investigative article, Color of Justice. 39 In October, four months later, the national media picked up the story after the William Kuntsler Foundation began providing funding and guidance to Tulia area residents seeking to free the convicted people. 40 In that same month an Abilene attorney filed a lawsuit on behalf of Yul Bryant, against whom charges were dropped because Coleman falsely identified him in a report. The lawsuit accused “the local sheriff [Larry Stewart] and the district attorney [Terry McEachern] of conspiring with undercover agent Tom Coleman to “deliberately and selectively target and prosecute” on the basis of race.” 41 Also in October 2000, the ACLU filed a civil rights complaint with the United States Department of Justice related to the blatant race component evident in the Tulia prosecutions. 42

Intense media exposure, such as a front page story in The New York Times and an article in Time magazine, didn’t seem at first to help the many Tulia defendants who continued languishing in prison serving their decades long sentences with no end in sight. However the torrent of publicity eroded the stonewalling of the legal system and led to the legal break those people needed: In early 2003 the Texas Court of Appeals ordered an evidentiary hearing to clarify whether the defendants in four cases were convicted solely on the evidence of Tom Coleman’s word. Judge Self was forced to recuse himself from the hearing because he publicly supported Prosecutor McEachern after the Tulia convictions came under scrutiny. 43 Retired Judge Ron Chapman was appointed to preside over the evidentiary hearing held in March 2003. On March 20th the Appeals Court’s question was answered affirmatively for the Appeals Court when Coleman responded “Yes,” when one of the defense lawyers asked him, “But for your word, there is really no evidence that any of these alleged buys took place?” 44

Coleman effectively undermined confidence in any of the convictions when he couldn’t state with certainty that any of the defendants were guilty. When asked about his confidence in their guilt he responded, “I’m pretty sure.” 45

Coleman further eroded confidence in the convictions when he acknowledged some of his sworn testimony Prosecutor McEachern used to procure them was “questionable.” 46

The credibility of Coleman’s accusations against 17% of Tulia’s black population was also damaged when his former wife disclosed in a sworn statement that he was a card carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan, and he was “openly prejudiced” against blacks and Hispanics. 47 Coleman corroborated the substance of his wife’s statement when he admitted during the hearing he referred to blacks as “niggers.” 48 Furthermore, it is known his superiors in Tulia did not reprimand him for derogatorily speaking about blacks in their presence during his 18-month “investigation.” 49

The hearings provided the first official public airing of what the Swisher County sheriff, prosecutor and judges have known for years: Tom Coleman is somewhat less than a stand-up guy who isn’t sure people sent to prison on his word are guilty, who was indicted for theft, and who was described by previous employers as a thief, “dishonest, unreliable [and] a racist.” 50 Former law enforcement co-workers echoed those assessments by describing Coleman as “unstable and untrustworthy” and, “He was the type of person who would tell you anything.” 51

Prosecutors Agree To Throw Out All The Tulia Convictions

Within days after the hearing an agreement was announced between the state’s special prosecutor and the lawyers representing 35 of the defendants. In exchange for the prosecution’s agreement to a stipulation that Tom Coleman “is simply not a credible witness under oath” and its support for reversal of the convictions, the defendants agreed to a lump sum payment of $250,000, and “not to sue Swisher County, its sheriff or prosecutor for civil rights damages.” 52 The settlement payouts are $12,000 for 12 people still imprisoned as of April 2003, $6,000 for those who served between 6 months and 3 years in prison, and $2,000 for those who received probation (although many sat in jail for months prior to their sentencing). 53

During a hearing on April 1, 2003, Judge Chapman asked the State’s special prosecutor “if the convictions represented a travesty of justice?” 54 The prosecutor replied “yes.” 55 Judge Chapman then announced his acceptance of the brokered resolution of the cases. It was anticipated he would submit his findings to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in the summer of 2003, along with his recommendation that the convictions be vacated. The special prosecutor went on record that if the convictions were vacated, the Tulia defendants would not be re-prosecuted. 56

Three weeks after the tentative agreement was announced, the Tulia case took an unexpected twist: On April 25, 2003 a grand jury indicted Tom Coleman on three counts of aggravated perjury related to his testimony during the hearing on March 20th. 57 Yet Texas’ statute of limitations has saved Tom Coleman from being prosecuted for his rampant perjury used by the Swisher County prosecutor to secure the 38 Tulia convictions. The grievousness of Coleman’s perjury is that without it none of those people could have been prosecuted, since his statements were the basis of their indictments and convictions.

Coleman also appears to have been handed a free pass for the multitude of crimes he may have committed in raising the $6,700 in restitution he paid to make the Cochran County theft indictment go away. It has been reported that Coleman’s only reasonable source of the money other than secretly robbing a bank, could have been if cut quality powder cocaine that he bought in a Abilene or Lubbock, submitted the diluted drugs as fabricated evidence to frame the innocent people he was “building” cases against, and then pocketed the difference between what Swisher County gave him for drug buys and what he paid for the uncut drugs. 58 That scenario explains why all the cocaine Coleman claimed he bought from the Tulia defendants is so much weaker than the cocaine sold on the streets of the closest cities where it can readily be bought. 59

Coleman Was The Front Man For The Power Brokers Behind The Scenes

Although Tom Coleman is an unsavory character with a checkered past who may wind up spending time in prison for his testimony on March 20, 2003, what is now publicly known about the Tulia drug busts was known in July 1999 by both the Swisher County sheriff and prosecutor. The Swisher County sheriff whose authority Coleman was acting under, knew there was no substantive evidence against any of the 43 people arrested on July 23, 1999 apart from Coleman’s claims. Likewise, the Swisher County prosecutor knew there was an absence of any actual evidence against the 38 people he was able to convict after a jury trial or by a guilty plea.

Swisher County District Judge Edward Self is also neck deep in the sordid Tulia travesty. Judge Self presided over the trials, plea hearings and sentencing of dozens of Tulia defendants. In case after case he saw that the evidence of their guilt was based on the word of one person – Tom Coleman. Yet prior to the start of the second Tulia trial, a defense lawyer filed evidence for Judge Self’s consideration that documented Coleman’s 1997 indictment for theft, and his arrest for that charge while conducting the Tulia undercover operation. 60 Judge Self’s response was to immediately seal the motion and block all “efforts to introduce the evidence, along with other information about Coleman’s past” that could impeach his testimony. 61 Although Judge Self knew there was irrefutable proof Tom Coleman was an unreliable blackheart of the worst kind, he used his power as a judge to conceal that information and continued presiding over the conviction of Tulia defendants and sentencing them for up to 434 years in prison: based on nothing more than Coleman’s word they had committed a crime. 62 Totally contrary to the truth known to Judge Self, a visitor to his courtroom would have thought Coleman was a boy scout who helped little old ladies cross the street. So instead of using his courtroom as a venue for pursuit of the truth, Judge Self used his position as a trusted public official to block efforts to expose the jurors and the rest of the world to the truth that he knew - Tom Coleman’s word isn’t worth a plug nickel.

Given what is now known, the 38 convicted Tulia defendants are the innocent victims of a frame-up orchestrated by the Swisher County sheriff and prosecutor that was duly rubber-stamped by the local judiciary. Tom Coleman was impotent to hurt anyone without the strings pulled by the powerful puppet masters lurking behind the scenes.

As the front man for the Tulia frame-ups, Tom Coleman is almost too conveniently taking the full brunt of the heat for the schemes exposure. The focus on Coleman has successfully deflected scrutiny away from the central role played in the tragic drama by the three crucial prongs in the frame-up scheme – the Swisher County sheriff, prosecutor and judge. Coleman has all the earmarks of being the designated fall guy – particularly since he has not yet been publicly castigated or spilled the beans on those people to save his own skin.

The deal between the state’s special prosecutor and lawyers for the defendants is also curious by its deflection of attention away from the Swisher County sheriff and prosecutor. It has a provision specifically protecting them from a civil rights lawsuit by any of the defendants covered by the deal. That shield of legal protection is significant. Given the way the Tulia cases played out it is not idle speculation that all the people involved in the prosecutions share Coleman’s virulent racism. A lawsuit could reveal the prosecutor, sheriff, and others, joined hands to “cleanse” Tulia of the black scourge.

Tulia Defendants Released From Prison On Bond

With 15 Tulia defendants continuing to languish in Texas prisons after the evidence to convict them had been publicly discredited, Texas State Senator John Whitmire introduced legislation in May that would allow Judge Chapman to release most of them pending the appeals court’s decision. 63 The bill was quickly passed and signed into law by Texas Governor Rick Perry. So on June 16, 2003, the 12 defendant’s under Chapman’s jurisdiction were released from prison on personal recognizance bonds. 64 Three defendants were not released: William Love who was on direct appeal and not covered by the brokered agreement, and two other men who for technical reasons were not under Judge Chapman’s jurisdiction.

 Tulia defendants sit in the jury box on June 16, 2003 awaiting Judge Chapman’s order releasing 12 of them on bail after spending almost four years wrongly imprisoned.

The man most responsible for the dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of the Tulia defendant’s, Amarillo attorney Jeff Blackburn, said of the releases, “There were plenty of times when I thought this day was never going to come. We fought a losing battle for two years. The only say we had was in the press.” 65 If there is a hero in the Tulia travesty it is Mr. Blackburn. In the dark days before the press picked up the story and national organizations became involved, he labored to ferret out the truth. Like a Don Quixote tilting at the windmill of the Texas criminal system, he paid for court transcripts and hired a private investigator out of his own pocket. He also acted as an evangelist for justice by contacting the press and recruiting organizations like the ACLU of Texas, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the William Kuntsler Foundation to aid in rectifying the defendant’s wrongful convictions. 66 He recognized significant press coverage was the key to prodding the legal system to do something on behalf of the innocent Tulia defendants: “We were never able to effect anything meaningful. We had to go outside [the legal system], to the press. I’m glad that we had the allies that we did. [Otherwise] it would have been swept under the rug.” 67

Mr. Blackburn’s Herculean efforts were recently recognized when the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association named him Lawyer of the Year. 68 The award to Mr. Blackburn marks that the Tulia travesty has come full circle since 1999. That is when Tom Coleman’s peers recognized his exemplary law enforcement work in Tulia, and the attorney general of Texas presented him with the Outstanding Lawman of the Year Award. It is unknown at this time if Tom Coleman will be requested to return that award.

Tulia Defendants Pardoned on August 22, 2003

Parallel to the review of the Tulia cases by the Court of Criminal Appeals was one by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. On July 30, 2003 the Board recommended that Governor Rick Perry pardon the 35 defendants eligible for executive clemency. 69

On August 22, 2003 - four years and one month after their arrests on trumped up criminal charges – Governor Perry pardoned those 35 defendants. The governor made his decision public in a short announcement:

Questions surrounding testimony from the key witness in these cases, coupled with recommendations from the Board of Pardons and Paroles, weighed heavily on my final decision. Texans demand a justice system that is tough but fair. I believe my decision to grant pardons in these cases is both appropriate and just.” 70

A suit was filed in Amarillo’s federal court to free two of the three defendants not covered by the pardon. The suit alleged the men’s imprisonment is based on violations of their constitutional rights by Coleman and other Texas law enforcement authorities. 71 The third man, William Love, was still on direct appeal seeking to be judicially exonerated, which would enable him to sue and possibly collect millions for his ordeal at the hands of Texas’ law enforcement system.

Tulia resident Alan Bean, one of the local heroes who helped found the community support group Friends of Justice, said after the pardons:

We're just very, very relieved. It has been a very long fight. It's been very hard on defendants and their families, and on the entire city of Tulia. I think everybody in Tulia is sort of heaving a sigh of relief today.” 72

NAACP attorney Vanita Gupta, a key figure in the legal fight on behalf of the Tulia defendants summed up the larger meaning of the Tulia Travesty after the pardons:

Tulia has become a model for what's wrong with the criminal justice system. It's been so compelling nationally because of the story it tells. What is now needed is for local, state and federal authorities to examine what happened there and put into effect reforms that will keep it from happening again.” 73

Governor Perry is to be commended for granting the pardons with lightning speed – especially considering the U.S. Dept. of Justice has been dragging its feet investigating the cases for three years. 74 Since a pardon has the effect of wiping out the effects of a criminal conviction, it makes it incontestable for the Court of Criminal Appeals to further consider the Tulia cases (other than William Love’s appeal). Given Texas case law that innocence trumps a conviction secured by either a trial or a guilty plea, and Prosecutor McEachern’s concealment of impeaching evidence about Coleman could be considered a denial of due process, the appeals court was relieved of the unwanted and embarrassing prospect of reversing all of those convictions in one fell swoop. 75 It is reasonable to speculate the appeals court drug its feet on making a decision since it knew the pardons were a fait accompli after the Board of Pardon’s gave the green light in July for Governor Perry to grant them. However the legal implications of pardoning the Tulia defendant’s is significantly less than if their convictions had been reversed, since the pardons didn’t create a decision citable by future wrongly convicted men and women.


At the time of Governor Perry's pardons, the Tulia Thirty-Eight had cumulatively spent over 70 years wrongly imprisoned in Texas jails and prisons. The injustice of what was done to those innocent men and women is compounded by the fact that other than Tom Coleman, no one else involved in the their wrongful convictions is likely to ever see the inside of a jail cell. Swisher County Prosecutor Terry McEachern, Judge Edward Self and Sheriff Larry Stewart are all home free, in spite of deserving to be investigated and possibly stand trial related to using their positions of trust and power to prey on nearly four dozen innocent men and women, and causing untold anguish to those people’s many hundreds of family members and friends. It is a telling commentary on deep rooted defects in this country’s judicial process that the legal lynching of the pardoned Tulia defendants will never be officially condemned by a court in this country. Yet the three ringleaders that orchestrated their wrongful convictions walk the streets as if they were respectable folks.


1Color of Justice, Nate Blakeslee (staff), The Texas Observer, June 23, 2000.

2Color of Justice, supra . A federally funded regional drug task force reimbursed Swisher County for Coleman’s salary..

3Fighting for Justice Overseas While Ignoring Injustice at Home, Alberta Phillips (columnist), Austin American-Statesman, March 30, 2003.

4Massive Drug Sweep Divides Texas Town, Paul Duggan (Staff), Washington Post, January 22, 2001.

5Color of Justice, supra .

6Id .

7Massive Drug Sweep Divides Texas Town, Paul Duggan (Staff), Washington Post, January 22, 2001.

8Id .

9Id .

10Id .

11Id .

12Color of Justice, supra . The Tulia Sentinel is the local newspaper.

13Texas to Toss Drug Convictions Against 38 People: Prosecutor Concedes 'Travesty of Justice', Lee Hockstader (staff), Washington Post, April 2, 2003, p. A3.

14Massive Drug Sweep Divides Texas Town, supra .

15Id .

16Color of Justice, supra .

17Some Justice in Tulia, Lauri Apple (staff), The Austin Chronicle, April 19, 2002, at: .

18Kafka in Tulia: A Big Justice in a Small Texas Town, Bob Herbert (columnist), NY Times, July 29, 2002, p. A23

19Color of Justice, supra .

2012 Tulia Drug Defendants Released From Jail, Jim Henderson, Houston Chronicle, June 16, 2003.

21Arrests of Blacks in Texas Town is Likened to ‘Ethnic Cleansing,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer (AP), October 14, 2000.

22Was Texas Town’s War on Drugs Really a War on Blacks?, Jim Yardley (staff), The New York Times, October 7, 2000.

23Arrests of Blacks in Texas Town is Likened to “Ethnic Cleansing,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, AP story, October 14, 2000.

24Color of Justice, supra . William Love’s treatment underscores that racist whites have a more virulent hatred for whites that associate with blacks than they do for blacks themselves, and to get rid of one you have to get rid of the other.

25Was Texas Town’s War on Drugs Really a War on Blacks?, supra .

26Color of Justice, supra .

27Id .

28Id .

29Id .

30The Tulia Story Isn’t Over, Bob Herbert, NY Times, April 28, 2003.

31Texas to Toss Drug Convictions Against 38 People, supra . “In a hearing in Tulia two weeks ago, Coleman took the stand and acknowledged there was no evidence beyond his testimony to support the convictions.”

32Color of Justice, supra .

33Id .

34Id .

35Coleman Testifies That His Word is Only Evidence of Drug Buys, Linda Kane (staff), Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, March 21, 2003.

36The first newspaper to report on Coleman’s past was The Texas Observer on June 23, 2000, in Color of Justice by Nate Blakeslee (staff).

37Color of Justice, supra .

38Id .

39Id .

40Round Two in Tulia, Nate Blakeslee (staff), The Texas Observer, October 20, 2000.

41Id .

42Was Texas Town’s War on Drugs Really a War on Blacks?, supra .

4312 Tulia Drug Defendants Released From Jail, supra .

44Fighting for Justice Overseas While Ignoring Injustice at Home, Alberta Phillips (columnist), Austin American-Statesman, March 30, 2003. See also, Coleman Testifies That His Word is Only Evidence of Drug Buys, supra .

45Fighting for Justice Overseas While Ignoring Injustice at Home, supra .

46Coleman Testifies That His Word is Only Evidence of Drug Buys, supra .

47Officer’s Credibility Attacked in Tulia Cases, Linda Kane (staff), Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, March 23, 2003.

48The Tulia Story Isn’t Over, supra .

49Kafka in Tulia, supra .

50Texas to Toss Drug Convictions Against 38 People, supra .

51Color of Justice, supra .

52Texas to Toss Drug Convictions Against 38 People, supra .

53Tulia drug defendants, county reach deal: Settlement may avert lawsuits in 38 disputed convictions, David Sedeno (staff), The Dallas Morning News, April 3, 2003, p. 4A

54Texas to Toss Drug Convictions Against 38 People, supra .

55Id .

56Id .

57Undercover Agent Accused of Perjury, staff, Amarillo Globe-News, April 25, 2003.

58Color of Justice, supra .

59Id .

60Although the prosecution is required to turn over all potentially incriminating evidence about a prosecution witness, Swisher County Prosecutor McEachern failed to provide the Tulia defendant’s with evidence of Coleman’s shady past, and the goings on related to his indictment that occurred while he was conducting the Tulia investigations. The evidence related to Coleman’s character and activities was put together by the Tulia defendant’s lawyers.

61Color of Justice, supra .

62The defendant in the second Tulia trial was William Love. He was a white man married to a black woman, and he was given 434 years in prison – the longest sentence of any Tulia defendant.

6312 Tulia Drug Defendants Released From Jail, supra .

64Id .

65 Id.

66Id .

67Id . (emphasis added).

68 Id.

69Pardons recommended in Texas drug cases, Betsy Blaney (AP Writer), Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 30, 2003.

70Perry Pardons 35 in Tulia Case, Greg Cunningham, The Amarillo Globe-News, August 23, 2003.





75Ex parte Tuley, No. 74,364 (Tex.Crim.App. 12/18/2002). See also, Possible Appeal in Unrelated Case Could Impact Tulia Convictions, AP, Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, April 11, 2003. Although an appeals court can find a reason to uphold any conviction, failure to reverse the Tulia convictions would have brought a crescendo of public scorn on the already discredited Texas legal system. See e.g., Tulia 35 Escape High Court Horror, Rick Casey, Houston Chronicle, August 27, 2003, Sec. A, Page 23, in which Attorney Jeff Blackburn threw caution to the wind when he was brutally honest in commenting on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ lack of integrity: “They’re so far gone they’re barely even a court anymore.”

Tulia Travesty Covered Up By Prosecutors and the Courts by Hans Sherrer, 10-14-03