Tulia Undercover Deputy Tom Coleman Convicted of Perjury

by Hans Sherrer

Justice:Denied magazine, Issue 27, Winter 2005, page 13

Tom Coleman entering the courthouse
on the day of his conviction.
(Joe Don Buckner/Avalanche Journal)
Coleman on day of his conviction
Tom Coleman was on top of the world after being honored as the Texas Department of Public Safety’s 1999 Outstanding Lawman of the Year. The award was for his undercover investigation between January 1998 and July 1999 in the small Texas Panhandle town of Tulia that resulted in 46 arrests and 38 convictions for drug dealing. However beginning in 2000, there have been many revelations about Coleman’s wrongdoing before, during, and after his investigation. 1

Among the irregularities in Coleman’s investigation was the lack of any audio or video surveillance recordings corroborating that he had bought drugs from a single arrested or convicted person, and when the dozens of people were arrested and their homes searched, no drugs, weapons or unusual amounts of money were found. It was also discovered that when hired by Swisher County, Coleman was under indictment for stealing $6,700 from Cochran County merchants while employed there as a sheriff deputy.

The disclosures about faults with Coleman’s drug “investigation” and his questionable character culminated in Governor Rick Perry’s pardon of 35 of the Tulia defendants in August 2003, and a $6 million settlement in April 2004 of a civil rights lawsuit against counties and cities belonging to the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force. That settlement was split amongst the 46 people arrested due to Coleman’s investigation.

Coleman’s fall from grace was completed on January 14, 2005. A Lubbock, Texas jury found him guilty of one count of aggravated perjury during a March 2003 evidentiary hearing in Tulia. That hearing was ordered by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to determine if the drug conviction of four Tulia defendants was supported by any evidence other than Coleman’s word. During that hearing Coleman testified that he did not learn that he had been indicted in 1997 for stealing $6,700 from Cochran County, Texas merchants - while working as a Cochran County sheriff deputy - until August 1998. In convicting Coleman, the jury relied on evidence that included Coleman's signature on a waiver of arraignment dated June 1, 1998 - two months prior to when he swore under oath he knew about it.

An interesting development during Coleman’s trial is that after testifying as a defense witness, Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart apparently forgot while being cross-examined by Special Prosecutor Rod Hobson that he was a participating in a perjury trial. Stewart was the person who hired Coleman as an undercover agent in January 1998. Prior to Stewart testifying, Amarillo Detective Jerry Massengill testified that he conducted an extensive background check of Coleman - including interviewing authorities and former associates in Cochran County - and that he shared what he learned about Coleman’s shady past with Stewart prior to Coleman’s hiring. Yet after Massengill’s testimony, Stewart testified on cross-examination that he wasn’t aware of Coleman’s troubled background and pending Cochran County theft charges when he hired Coleman. Outside the presence of the jury, Hobson told Judge Gleason that Stewart’s testimony was possibly perjurious because it was contrary to previous statements Stewart had given under oath, and he said to the judge, “I suggest you appoint Sheriff Stewart a lawyer. We believe there's significant variations in what he said, and it's problematic.” 2 Stewart was dismissed as a witness and the judge assigned him a defense lawyer to consult with. It is noteworthy that Stewart’s knowledge of Coleman’s background prior to hiring him was supported by his testimony that he wouldn’t rule out, in hindsight, hiring Coleman knowing that he was under indictment for theft while working as a law enforcement officer. 3

After the five-day trial, the jury deliberated for about three hours before convicting Coleman of the aggravated perjury count. However he was acquitted of another aggravated perjury count related to whether he testified falsely about filling a private vehicle at a Cochran County owned fuel pump, even though a witness testified to seeing him do so. The jury also recommended he serve a seven-year probationary sentence.

After the verdict, Hobson said that whether perjury charges would be filed against Sheriff Stewart is up to Lubbock County Criminal District Attorney Bill Sowder and a Lubbock County grand jury. 4

Four days after Coleman’s conviction, Judge Gleason held his sentencing hearing at the Swisher County Courthouse in Tulia. Coleman was sentenced to ten years probation. That makes him vulnerable to being sent to prison for a probation violation. As Hobson observed, “It’s not necessarily going to be easy for him to live on probation.” 5

Many people recognize that Coleman was the little fish who took the fall for his superiors. Hobson expressed that opinion after the sentencing hearing, “He (Sheriff Stewart) was the evil architect in this whole deal.” 6

Note by Hans Sherrer. In the summer of 2004 I talked with Special Prosecutor Rod Hobson about the status of Coleman’s prosecution. He expressed determination to present what he thought was a solid case against Tom Coleman. Based on the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal‘s daily news stories about the trial, that is what he did. Although there is no shortage of opportunities to cast the actions of prosecutors across the nation in an unfavorable light, Hobson deserves credit for not extending the law enforcement courtesy of presenting a fluff prosecution case against Coleman that would have ensured his acquittal of both perjury counts. Furthermore, Hobson’s hard-nosed questioning of Sheriff Stewart laid the foundation for Stewart’s prosecution for perjury if Lubbock County’s prosecutor displays the same backbone as Hobson.

1 See, Travesty in Tulia, Texas, Hans Sherrer Justice:Denied, Issue 23, Winter 2004, page 3.
2 Swisher County sheriff grilled on Coleman's background, by D. Lance Lunsford, Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, January 13, 2005.
3 Sheriff testifies about Coleman's arrest record, by Betsy Blaney (AP), Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, January 13, 2005.
4 Coleman convicted of perjury, by D. Lance Lunsford, Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, January 15, 2005.
5 Case closed, but echoes still haunt Tulia, D. Lance Lunsford, Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, January 19, 2005.
6 Id.