ON THE ROADSIDE BILLBOARDS AND church signs of the Panhandle, religion is sold chiefly as a form of encouragement, and when you get out on Interstate 27, it’s easy to see why. Heading north from Lubbock, you soon find yourself in what is sometimes referred to as the Big Nothing: thousands of square miles of featureless High Plains dotted with little towns whose very names—Friendship, Happy, Progress, Pep—seem to be a defense against the ominous feeling of being a lone body, without cover or companionship, in a place that big and flat; a feeling of being conspicuously vertical, like a prairie dog caught too far from his hole with a red-tailed hawk circling overhead. Over the past two years, few communities in this area have needed uplift more than the people of Tulia, who have seen their town, and all its secrets, exposed to the glaring spotlight of the national news media.
When I first visited Tulia on assignment for the Texas Observer, in the spring of 2000, little had been written about the previous summer’s now-famous drug busts. The story I came back with was a sort of perfect storm for drug-policy-reform advocates, neatly illustrating much that has gone wrong with the nation’s domestic drug war. Sheriff Larry Stewart of Tulia, a ranching and farming town of five thousand roughly halfway between Lubbock and Amarillo, had used grant money from the governor’s office to hire Tom Coleman, a gypsy cop with no experience in undercover work and, as it was later revealed, a checkered past. Coleman worked deep cover in Tulia for eighteen months with almost no supervision, during which time he reported making more than 130 drug buys, mostly small amounts of powdered cocaine, from 46 dealers. Although the deliveries were small, an unusually high percentage of them were alleged to have taken place near a school or a park, making them first-degree felonies.
Coleman’s success seemed too good to be true, and it was. In not one single case did he wear a wire nor did anyone ever corroborate his claims with eyewitness or video evidence. When the arrests finally came, not one single suspect was found to be in possession of drugs. Perhaps most striking of all, 39 of the suspects were black in a town with fewer than 300 black residents. Few of the alleged dealers could afford to make bail. Several were known to be crack addicts, people who had neither the money nor the connections to acquire powdered cocaine. In a handful of the cases, Coleman botched the identification of his suspects so badly that the charges against them were quietly dismissed. None of that seemed to matter to the district attorney or to the juries that heard the first half a dozen cases, pronounced the defendants guilty, and handed down sentences of up to ninety years.
Defenders of civil liberties, particularly the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, in New York, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, flogged the Observer story to everyone within range of a fax machine, and it gradually gained momentum; before long the New York Times re-reported it for page 1. Yet nothing concrete came of the publicity—almost none of the jailed defendants were released until they were paroled—and just as quickly the attention of the media and other interested parties dried up. Or it would have had it not been for a series of columns this summer by Bob Herbert of the Times, whose better-late-than-never outrage resuscitated the controversy. Suddenly, two years later, the black residents of Tulia are once again being asked to give interviews to the broadcast and print media, and so are the local authorities, particularly Stewart and district attorney Terry McEachern, who have learned by now to let someone else answer the phone. And the wheels of state government have finally begun to turn: Shortly after Herbert’s sixth column on the subject, Texas attorney general John Cornyn—in a hotly contested campaign for a U.S. Senate seat against, it should be noted, an African American—finally announced that he would support a state investigation into the Tulia arrests. (He had been begged to investigate for more than a year.)
It was a good time, I decided, to return to Tulia. So in September, I made another trip up I-27 to check in on the people I had interviewed on my first visit and to see how the town had survived its newfound notoriety.
SINCE I LAST INTERVIEWED HIM, in May 2000, Joe Moore has had a lot of time to think about what happened in Tulia and why. Moore, who was accused of delivering about $400 worth of cocaine to Coleman, was the first to go before a jury, and his trial set the pattern for what was to follow. The state began its case one day at nine o’clock, presenting a baggie of cocaine as its sole piece of evidence and Coleman as its only witness. Moore’s court-appointed lawyer called no witnesses. At noon the next day,