Tulia Travesty Lawsuits Settled For $5 Million
By Hans Sherrer
Justice:Denied magazine, Issue 24, page 6
The events leading up to Texas Governor Rick Perry’s pardoning of 35 people on August 22, 2003, were reported in Travesty in Tulia, Texas (Justice:Denied magazine, Issue 23, Winter 2004, http://justicedenied.org/tulia.htm).
The prosecution of those people began with the July 23, 1999 arrest of 43 people in the Tulia, Texas area on drug related charges. Thirty-eight of the arrested people were subsequently convicted – 11 after a trial and 27 by a brokered guilty plea. The many guilty pleas by people protesting their innocence followed the sentences ranging from 12 to 434 years, that were imposed on the first eight defendants convicted after a trial.
In the years following the arrests during the July 23rd sweep, several federal civil rights lawsuits were filed against a variety of defendants by people who were arrested – but not convicted. As the Tulia cases unraveled from June 2000 to August 2003, a multitude of cities, counties and individuals became vulnerable to a lawsuit, because the Tulia drug investigation was paid for, and conducted under the auspices of The Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force (Task Force). Thirty cities and counties were members of the Task Force. 1 The city of Amarillo, 44 miles from Tulia, was the lead Task Force member and the one with the deepest pockets, so it was facing the largest potential liability.
On March 11, 2004, a global settlement of all pending lawsuits naming the city of Amarillo as a defendant was announced between the city and the total of 45 people still alive (one is deceased), who had been arrested as a result of the Tulia “investigation” conducted by Swisher County Sheriff Deputy Tom Coleman. The city of Amarillo agreed to pay $5 million and pull-out of the Task Force on June 1, 2004, when its 2003-2004 operating grant of $1,522,418 expires. City Attorney Marcus Norris said the city recognized the “misjustice” committed by the task force. 2 Headquartered at the Amarillo Police Department, the Task Force is expected to dissolve without Amarillo’s participation.
“The city of Amarillo did not feel comfortable standing behind an agent who has been discredited numerous times...” Amarillo city attorney Marcus Norris
Amarillo Mayor Trent Sisemore said the city agreed to a global settlement to prevent a potentially devastating judgment, “The lawsuit had the potential to cause many cities in the Panhandle to become insolvent.” 3 Additionally, defending against the lawsuits would have involved Amarillo’s defense of the Tulia investigations, which the city had already admitted was flawed. As city Attorney Norris observed, “The city of Amarillo did not feel comfortable standing behind an agent who has been discredited numerous times and who is not the caliber that would be employed by the city of Amarillo.” 4
The Tulia defendants signed contracts assigning 1/3rd of the
settlement to their lawyers. However some of the lawyers involved were working pro bono, so their payout will exceed 2/3rds of the $5 million. A claims administrator will determine the payout to each person using a formula taking into consideration various individual factors, including whether the person was convicted and the length of their time in custody. However it is divided up, the average payout to the 45 Tulia arrestees will exceed $74,000.
As of late Spring 2004, negotiations were continuing with the other 51 municipalities, counties and individuals named as a defendant in one or more of the suits, but the settlement amounts from those negotiations is expected to be negligible compared to the $5 million Amarillo agreed to pay.
Note: If you missed JD Issue 23 that included Travesty in Tulia, Texas, the 6,000 word article that details the Tulia cases from the beginning of the investigation in January 1998 through the August 2003 pardons, it can be obtained by sending $3 (stamps OK) to: Justice Denied magazine - Issue 23; PO Box 881; Coquille, OR 97423.
City Pays For Justice, Greg Cunningham, Amarillo Globe-News, March 12, 2004.
Tulia Questions, Answers, Staff, Amarillo Globe-News, March 12, 2004.
Interview of attorney Jeff Blackburn by Hans Sherrer, March 24, 2004.
Travesty in Tulia, Texas, Hans Sherrer, Justice Denied magazine, Issue 23.
1 City Pays For Justice, Greg Cunningham (staff), Amarillo Globe-News, March 12, 2004.
2 Targets of Drug Bust Win $5 Million, Betsy Blaney (staff), Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, March 12, 2004, p. 1B..
3 City Pays For Justice, Greg Cunningham (staff), Amarillo Globe-News, March 12, 2004.
4 City Pays For Justice, Greg Cunningham (staff), Amarillo Globe-News, March 12, 2004.