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Tulia texas inmates freed { June 17 2003 }

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For Tulia 12, 'It Feels So Good'
Texas Inmates Freed After Four Years in Prison on Suspect Charges

By Lee Hockstader
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 17, 2003; Page A01

TULIA, Tex., June 16 -- For the first time in four years, Kizzie White's two small children got to hug and cling to her today, without anyone interrupting to say time's up.

For the first time in four years, Joe Moore had precisely what he wanted, in the order he wanted it: barbecued ribs and a long, soapy hot bath.

And for the first time in four years, Freddie Brookins Jr. started planning his future again, one he hopes will include the college scholarship that slipped from his grasp in 1999.

The three were among 12 people -- 11 of them African Americans -- who walked free on bail today in this tiny Texas Panhandle town, after four years in prison on drug convictions that a Texas judge and prosecutors now agree were a travesty of justice based on the uncorroborated testimony of a racist white police officer. Two weeks ago, Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill allowing them to be released pending an appeals court's review, cutting short sentences ranging from 20 to 90 years.

"It feels so good," said White, 26, who beamed as her daughter, Roneisha, 9, and son, Cashawn, 6, nuzzled her, staying close as magnets to the mother they had seen briefly just eight times in four years. "I'm going to be the best mother I can to them."

A few feet away stood Moore, 60, a hog farmer and gigantic man surrounded by television cameras and supported by his lawyer. Illiterate, diabetic and barely able to walk without the lawyer's aid, Moore, who was serving a 90-year sentence, clutched a grocery bag full of shampoo, conditioner and soap, and declared, "Everything's all right now!"

If not quite a denouement, the release of the Tulia 12 was easily the most dramatic turn in a case that began before dawn July 23, 1999, when masked police officers began rounding up 46 people in Tulia, all but six of them black. In a town of fewer than 5,000 people, the arrests represented nearly 10 percent of the black population.

In eight lightning-quick trials, juries with virtually no black members handed down blisteringly tough sentences -- even though the sweeps turned up no drugs, weapons, paraphernalia or other signs of drug dealing. That convinced most of the other defendants to plead guilty, even though many of them swore that they had never sold powdered cocaine to the undercover police officer, an itinerant Texas lawman named Tom Coleman.

One other convict from Tulia is expected to go free this month, and three others imprisoned on charges from other jurisdictions will remain locked up for the time being. Of the 38 convicted, 25 ended up serving prison sentences; nine of them had been released before today. While all the convictions will stand until they are vacated by a pardon from Perry or overturned on review, today's release was an earthquake for Tulia -- and a resounding victory for the battalion of attorneys from Washington, New York and Texas who donated millions of dollars' worth of legal work.

The 12 were released on their own recognizance. They had filed into the Swisher County courtroom just before 1 p.m. wearing civilian clothes and a few fleeting smiles, as if none believed that they were on the verge of freedom. Seated in the jury box, they seemed a sort of reverse image of the white and Hispanic juries that had convicted a number of them in the same courtroom.

At least 16 out-of-town defense lawyers and paralegals -- from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York as well as white-shoe East Coast firms such as Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, Hogan & Hartson and Sullivan & Cromwell -- crowded into the courtroom. Those who spoke in support of releasing the inmates on their own recognizance denounced the Tulia busts as a symptom of systemic ills as well as a small-town legal system gone haywire.

"It is because of a grave failure of the criminal justice system that these people were robbed of four years of their lives," said Vanita Gupta of the NAACP legal defense fund. Several also singled out Coleman, who Texas Judge Ron Chapman in April concluded had "falsified reports, misrepresented the nature and extent of his investigative work and misidentified various defendants during his investigation." Coleman faces perjury charges stemming from a separate case.

"Tom Coleman is a cancer," said Mitchell E. Zamoff, an attorney for Hogan & Hartson in Washington. "The judge diagnosed the cancer two months ago, and now it's time to remove the cancer before it spreads any further."

As the lawyers spoke, county Sheriff Larry Stewart, who had hired Coleman and lauded him publicly as an honest professional, watched impassively by the entrance to the courtroom. He declined to comment, other than to say that Tulia has been unfairly portrayed as a racist, remote place -- repeating a widespread view among the town's white residents.

Chapman, a retired trial and appellate judge from Dallas assigned to handle the Tulia case, recommended to Texas's highest criminal appeals court in April that the convictions be thrown out. Today, he briefly lectured the 12 before him to "make better choices" and then freed them on bail.

The crowd in the courtroom burst into applause, and friends and relatives mobbed the jury box, embracing and kissing the newly liberated.

Mattie White, 51, a prison guard and Kizzie's mother, who has been caring for her two children since 1999, could not quite reach the box through the jostle of cameramen and lawyers and well-wishers. But she watched it all -- not just Kizzie, but her son, Kareem; her brother, Willie Hall; and her cousins, Timothy Towery and Jason Williams, who also were among the 12. Together, Mattie White's relatives have been serving 165 years in prison.

Without high-powered lawyers and attention from the national media, she said, "they'd have all still been in prison."

Defense lawyers urged their freed clients to seek new lives outside Tulia, where many whites are bitter at the outcome of the case, believing most of the imprisoned people to be guilty. "There's too much pain for them to live here right now," Gupta said.

As part of a deal in April to move for the dismissal of the cases, Swisher County paid $250,000 in return for an agreement that the 12 would not sue county officials. From that sum, each of the 12 freed today is likely to receive $12,000, with lesser amounts, ranging from $1,000 to $6,000, going to those previously released who faced more lenient sentences.

But their lawyers said those amounts were a token of what would ultimately be sought in damages. Once the criminal cases are resolved, said one attorney, a rash of lawsuits is likely.

Nonetheless, nearly all those freed today, and many of their relatives, insisted that they neither hated Tulia nor were bitter about what happened -- although they did acknowledge their anger at Coleman.

Moore, who spent the last four years folding socks in the prison laundry, said, "I just want to go home, look at TV and stay out of trouble."

2003 The Washington Post Company

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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