Tulia defendants freed by Texas law

June 2, 2003 at 6:33 PM
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AUSTIN, Texas, June 2 (UPI) -- Gov. Rick Perry signed legislation Monday that will free 13 residents of Tulia, Texas, who were arrested on questionable drug charges four years ago.

The inmates will be released from state prison after posting bonds within the next 10 days to await the outcome of investigations in the case. Thirty-eight people, mostly blacks, were arrested in the controversial case based on one investigator's testimony.

A special judge recommended to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that the cases be dismissed after finding that former investigator Tom Coleman was not credible. It could take the appeals court months to rule in the case.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and state Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, sponsored the unusual bill with specific language that grants the defendants immediate freedom with the governor's signature.

"This bill does not make a determination about the innocence or guilt of the Tulia defendants, but it does allow the remaining individuals behind bars to be released until the justice system has finally spoken," Perry said. "That may sound unusual, but this is an extraordinary case, and I believe it demands extraordinary action."

Perry has also asked the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to begin an immediate investigation of the 38 convictions and recommended whether some form of clemency is appropriate.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, commended Perry for signing the bill and Whitmire and Keel for pushing the legislation through the session.

"If this had happened to three people instead of 13, we might never had heard about it," said Ellis. "We should find out how this happened in the first place and prevent it from happening again. My Innocence Commission bill would have done just that."

Ellis' legislation would have created a commission to study the cases of those who have been found innocent after serving time in prison. It was passed out of the Senate but did not get a hearing in the House Criminal Jurisprudence committee.

The Justice Department and the Texas attorney general are also conducting investigations into the Tulia case.

Coleman, the undercover agent who conducted the one-man investigation, was indicted April 23 in Tulia on perjury charges related to his testimony before a judge who reviewed the case for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. He faces three counts of perjury.

Retired State District Judge Ron Chapman recommended to the appeals court that the 38 convictions in the case be dismissed. The new special prosecutor has said if the court recommends new trials, he will not prosecute the suspects again.

The task force arrested a total of about 46 people in the small town of about 5,000 people. Thirty-nine of them were black, nearly 10 percent of the black population of the town. Eight cases were tossed out initially for various reasons.

Eight of the 38 remaining cases went to trial and brought convictions. Twenty-seven other defendants pleaded guilty and served prison time or received probation. Three others went to prison because their probations on other convictions were revoked.

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