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Last Updated: Monday, 16 June, 2003, 22:02 GMT 23:02 UK
Texas drugs case defendants freed
Map of Texas
Twelve people jailed for drugs offences in a small Texas town have been released on bail, after the man whose evidence convicted them was himself indicted for perjury.

A total of 46 people were arrested in Tulia on one day four years ago after an undercover operation by a single agent, Tom Coleman.

In his 18-month investigation, he claimed he bought drugs from the accused - but no narcotics were ever produced in court.

In a small town of only 5,000, where 90% of the population - like Agent Coleman - is white, almost all of those arrested were black.

Thirty-eight of those arrested were convicted or accepted plea bargains, and received jail terms of up to 60 years.

Following Monday's release, all but two are now free.

Sparse evidence

The case has caused such controversy that a new law was passed in the Texas state legislature, which allows the Tulia group to be released on bail after conviction.

Retired District Judge Ron Chapman from Dallas, who headed an inquiry into the case, recommended that the convictions be quashed.

His report highlights failings in:

  • Agent Coleman himself, "the most devious, non-responsive witness this court has witnessed in 25 years"

  • the local district attorney

  • Tom Coleman's supervisors at the Swisher County Sheriff's Department

  • the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Department

When the cases came to court, there was no audio or video evidence of Agent Coleman's meetings with the alleged drugs dealers.

No drugs were produced and little corroborating evidence put before the court.

Of the 46 arrested, 39 were black - almost one in 10 of the non-white population in Tulia.

Agent Coleman was named 1999 Outstanding Lawman Of The Year by The Texas Narcotic Control Program.

He maintains his innocence, but now faces three charges of aggravated perjury.

'Finally here'

All the cases will go to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which must rule on whether the convictions will be struck out.

The defendants were released on bail but did not have to post bonds.

Two of the group will remain in jail - one because of a pending charge in another county, and another who is midway through a direct appeal in the case.

"Until these individuals receive full and complete relief, whether through a pardon or an overturning of their convictions, this matter is not resolved," said Vanita Gupta, a lawyer with the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.

"I'm so happy for them," said Billy Wafer, one of the few arrested who had an alibi and avoided being charged.

"It's been a long time coming but it's finally here."

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