Tulia Travesty Updates
By Hans Sherrer
Justice:Denied magazine, Issue 25, page 6
Tulia Defendants Settle For Additional $1 Million - $6 Million Total
Twenty-nine Texas Panhandle counties and cities have agreed to pay $1 million to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit for their role in the 1999 arrest of nearly four dozen innocent people in Swisher County. [See, Travesty in Tulia, Justice:Denied, Issue 23, p. 3] The lawsuit’s defendants were all members of the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force that oversaw the Swisher County undercover drug sting operation. The $1 million settlement consists of payments by 26 counties and 3 cities that range from $5,000 to $80,000. The city of Amarillo had earlier agreed to settle its liability as a defendant in the lawsuit for $5 million. [See, Tulia Travesty Lawsuits Settled For $5 Million, Justice:Denied, Issue 24, p. 6]
The total settlement of $6 million resolves all claims against task force members by the 46 people arrested as a result of the Tulia drug sting. The lawsuit was dismissed in an order dated April 30, 2004 by U.S. District Court Judge Mary Robinson in Amarillo.
Source: Federal Civil Rights Suit in Tulia Case Dismissed, Greg Cunningham, Amarillo Globe-News, May 19, 2004.
Perjury Trial of Discredited Tulia Undercover Agent Delayed
Former Swisher County sheriff deputy Tom Coleman was indicted on three counts of perjury in April 2003. The alleged perjury occurred in his testimony during a special evidentiary hearing in March 2003 related to his credibility as a witness in accusing 46 Tulia residents of dealing drugs. Coleman’s trial was scheduled to begin on May 24, 2004. It was delayed, however, when the judge granted a continuance without setting a new trial date.
The trial could further be delayed by prosecutor Rod Hobson’s motion for a change of venue filed on May 3rd. Prosecutor Hobson wants the trial moved from Tulia because he thinks finding a fair and impartial jury there is not possible. In the motion he cited the “extensive publicity” about the drug busts in July 1999 and their aftermath, including Governor Rick Perry’s pardoning of 35 defendants in August 2003, and the settlement of civil suits in the spring of 2004 for $6 million.
As this issue of Justice:Denied goes to press in late-August, a decision has neither been made on the change of venue motion, nor on a new trial date.
Source: Coleman Files For Change of Venue, Staff, Amarillo Globe-News, May 15, 2004.
Tulia Prosecutor Sued By Texas State Bar
On May 26, 2004 the State Bar of Texas filed a disciplinary petition with the Texas Supreme Court against former Swisher County District Attorney Terry McEachern. The petition alleges McEachern committed “serious” misconduct during the prosecution of almost four dozen innocent people arrested as a result of a Swisher County undercover drug sting in Tulia from January 1998 to July 1999.
There are three prongs to McEachern’s alleged misconduct:
He failed provide discovery evidence to the Tulia defendants related to Swisher County sheriff deputy Tom Coleman. That evidence included information concerning Coleman’s indictment in 1997 for the theft of $6,700 in services from Cochran County, Texas merchants, and his abuse of official capacity by personally using a county credit card, while he worked as a Cochran County sheriff deputy.
He knowingly allowed Coleman to lie under oath during hearings and trials of the Tulia drug defendants by testifying that he had never been arrested.
He deliberately misrepresented Coleman’s background in court to make him appear to be a credible witness. 1
Coleman was indicted on three counts of perjurious testimony during a March 2003 evidentiary hearing in Tulia that was ordered by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to determine his credibility as a witness. As of August 2004 he is awaiting trial on those charges.
The State Bar’s investigation of a grievance against McEachern became public knowledge in August 2003. The petition was filed after McEachern and the State Bar were unable to agree on the degree of his misconduct or a punishment.
A judge from outside the Panhandle region will be appointed by the Supreme Court to preside over the civil trial. The State Bar must prove its case against McEachern by a preponderance of the evidence. If McEachern loses, he would face a punishment ranging from a reprimand to disbarment.
Dawn Miller, the State Bar’s chief disciplinary counsel, said, “We do consider it a very serious case.” 2
Amarillo defense attorney Jeff Blackburn was instrumental in attracting the national attention necessary to correct the travesty of justice in Tulia that prosecutor McEachern was a party to. Blackburn commented on the impending disciplinary trial: “Prosecutors are charged under our laws with seeking justice, not just convictions. One of the problems in Tulia was that this law was broken and that the prosecution just got caught up in the desire to convict.” 3
McEachern has already experienced negative fall-out from his handling of the Tulia cases. In March 2004 he lost his re-election bid after 14 years as the district attorney for Swisher, Hale and Castro counties. He received about half as many votes as the leading candidate. 4 His June 2003 aggravated drunk driving conviction in New Mexico may have also contributed to voter disenchantment with him. On November 27, 2002 McEachern was stopped by police in Ruidoso, New Mexico on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. He was arrested after failing a series of field sobriety tests, and he refused to take a breath test before or after his arrest. 5
McEachern’s civil trial is expected to be held before the end of 2004.
1 State Bar Files Petition Against McEachern, Greg Cunningham (staff), Amarillo Globe-News, May 27, 2004.
2 State Bar Files Against McEachern, Greg Cunningham (staff), Amarillo Globe-News, April 9, 2004.
4 McEachern Misses Runoff, Jessica Raynor (staff), Amarillo Globe-News, March 10, 2004.
5 Hale-Swisher district attorney guilty in DWI, John Reynolds (Morris News Service), Amarillo Globe-News, June 11, 2003.