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Tainted evidence to free 13 prisoners { June 16 2003 }

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Tainted Evidence to Free 13 Prisoners in Texas


June 16, 2003

Tulia, Texas - Thirteen people imprisoned on the testimony of a discredited undercover officer were to be released today, nearly four years after they and dozens of other mostly black residents were arrested on drug charges.

"I'm so happy for them," said Billy Wafer, one of the 46 arrested in the 1999 sweep that capped an 18-month undercover operation. "It's been a long time coming but it's finally here."

Wafer wasn't charged; he had an alibi, and his case was dismissed. But 38 others were convicted on the uncorroborated word of undercover drug agent Tom Coleman - now under indictment on perjury charges - or accepted plea agreements out of fear of lengthy prison terms.

Civil rights advocates have called the arrests racially motivated. Of the 46 arrested in the small Panhandle town, 39 were black. Coleman is white.

Coleman claimed he bought drugs from the defendants, but he worked alone and used no audio or video surveillance. No drugs were ever found during the arrests. Today 12 blacks and one Hispanic were to appear before State District Judge Ron Chapman, who was expected to free them on personal recognizance bonds while their cases are on appeal. One of them, Daniel Olivarez, 22, will remain in custody because there is a hold on him from Potter County, which is outside Chapman's jurisdiction. Chapman, who presided over hearings for four of the defendants, said Coleman was "simply not a credible witness under oath." The judge recommended that the 38 convictions be overturned and new trials ordered, but a special prosecutor has said there will be no new trials.

Coleman, a contract agent for the Panhandle Regional Drug Task Force, was indicted in April on three charges of aggravated perjury stemming from his testimony during the hearings Chapman oversaw.

Vanita Gupta, assistant counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, said she was "overjoyed and relieved" that the defendants who were "ripped from their families" finally will be free. But she added, "Until these individuals receive full and complete relief, whether through a pardon or an overturning of their convictions, this matter is not resolved."
Copyright 2003, Newsday, Inc.

Inmates released tells despair { June 17 2003 }
Tainted evidence to free 13 prisoners { June 16 2003 }
Texas jailed improperly
Tulia texas inmates freed { June 17 2003 }
Undercover officer perjury

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