Steve's Soapbox

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Small Town Texas and Miscarriage of Justice....

Pen again proves mighty in sordid tale
How one reporter armed with nothing but a notebook took on a corrupt Texas town

By Patrick Beach
Sunday, October 30, 2005
Tulia, like Vidor or Jasper, is one of those Texas towns with little to distinguish it but a deep, undying and much-deserved shame. A 1999 drug roundup in that West Texas town netted 39 people, all but a handful of them black, who were charged with dealing cocaine on the sole word of an undercover cop and raging sociopath named Tom Coleman.
The busts, trials, appeals, national controversy and subsequent reversals revealed a criminal justice system -- this in a state that purports to prize individual liberty -- that would be laughed out of any self-respecting Third World country. Everybody -- from Coleman to the sheriff who protected him to the judges, defense lawyers and prosecutors who aided and abetted this grotesque process to John Cornyn (then the state's top law-enforcement official, now enjoying the finer pleasures of the U.S. Senate) -- played a hand in a breathtaking miscarriage of justice.
And the world wouldn't have heard about it if it hadn't been for one guy with a reporter's notebook.
A small group of locals begged for someone to publicize what looked like a concerted effort to railroad a good portion of Tulia's black population into prison forever. Most of the state's media outlets pronounced themselves too occupied with the latest inconsequential murmurings at the Capitol to take a look.
But Nate Blakeslee was working for the Texas Observer, the small but influential publication that famously goes its own way. Blakeslee, who lives in Austin, headed to West Texas, broke the story and stayed on it for five years. Had it not been for his work, Tulia wouldn't have become a national story, the pressure wouldn't have built on the political and court systems, and those defendants would still be in prison, some of them serving terms of hundreds of years.
Now Blakeslee's busted the story out into a book, and his achievement is no less heroic the second time around. As much as anything, "Tulia" is a near-superhuman feat of reporting, as Blakeslee tells the stories of dozens of luckless defendants -- the bootlegger/pig farmer/"drug kingpin," the fading athlete, the woman who was at a bank in Oklahoma City, 275 miles away, when she was allegedly making a dope deal with Coleman -- and numerous cops, lawyers, locals, out-of-town activists, politicians and legal muscle. With so much going on, it's amazing that Blakeslee can steer steady enough to keep this thing aimed between the ditches. (In fact, the first dozen or so pages of the prologue are, perhaps necessarily, slow and a tad confusing, as Blakeslee hauls his ensemble cast onstage.)
But the book is much more than the story of what was, as he wrote three years back in the Observer, "a sort of perfect storm for drug policy reform advocates." It's about the agonizing death of rural America, a system that passes around dirty cops like the Catholic Church shuttled pedophile priests, a prison system that serves as a network of trade schools for criminals, the lockstep conformity of small towns and a culture of out-and-out drug hysteria that allowed one bent lawman to mount his own personal pogrom against a group of defenseless people he'd sworn to protect.
It's also about race. As a black teenager says, "The only difference from 1920 and now is they can't take us out and hang us on a tree. They can just send us to prison for life. It's the same thing: We ain't never gonna be free again."
All because of Coleman. "As a villain, he sold himself," Blakeslee writes. Coleman made his buys without buttressing his busts with video, audio or corroborating witnesses, and famously claimed to have taken notes on his leg. Asked on the witness stand if he still had those notes, Coleman replied, "No sir, I took a bath since then."
The legal process that grew out of the Tulia scandal likely generated a metric ton of paper, and to Blakeslee's credit he's able to zoom in on a crucial question, answer or ruling and explain its implications. But Blakeslee's also contributed a metric ton of his own reporting that is equally revealing, especially when it comes to the network dedicated to freeing the Tulia defendants. There was factional infighting, for instance, between those who used certain cases to keep the story in the national spotlight and those who were simply working to free their clients.
Blakeslee brings a cool and clear writing style to his story, which is welcome in a case that generated so much heat and light. Despite the Observer's lefty reputation and whatever Blakeslee's personal politics, this is not a partisan screech. There is no viable liberal-conservative debate to be waded into here; Tulia was about right and wrong, and the contrast was as obvious as -- you guessed it -- black and white. Through the whole wretched tale I was reminded of William Gaddis' opening of "A Frolic of His Own": "You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law."
Perfect storm though it might have been, to regard Tulia as an aberration, as something weird and unbelievable that happened in some shabby and forgettable hayseed backwater, would be a terrible mistake. It will happen again. It's probably happening right now. And if some young reporter gets wind of it but is unsure how to tackle the story, she'll have Blakeslee's book to show her how it's done.

Texas Book Festival

Nate Blakeslee will appear at the Texas Book Festival 1:45 p.m. today in Capitol Extension Room E2.010.
Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town
Nate Blakeslee
Public Affairs, $26.95; 445-3603