“This is a story about how our idea of justice gets corrupted when we declare war on something.”
— Jeff Blackburn, criminal defense attorney
On July 23, 1999, undercover narcotics agent Thomas Coleman carried out one of the biggest drug stings in Texas history. By the end of the blazing summer day, dozens of residents in the sleepy farming town of Tulia had been rounded up and thrown behind bars. Thirty-nine of the 46 people accused of selling drugs to Coleman were African American. But disturbing evidence about the undercover investigation and Coleman’s past soon began to surface.
Tulia, Texas follows the 1999 raid and its aftermath, which roiled the small rural community. When Gary Gardner, a retired white farmer, questioned the arrests, other residents who were convinced of the defendants’ guilt criticized him for raising the issue publicly. More questions were raised after 13 defendants were convicted and given unusually long prison sentences of 25, 60, and in some cases even 90 years. The arrest of 22-year-old Freddie Brookins Jr. came as a shock to his family. A celebrated high school athlete, Freddie — who had no prior criminal record — was given a 20-year sentence. When a lawyer named Jeff Blackburn found numerous discrepancies in Tom Coleman’s testimony, further investigation revealed an outstanding warrant for Coleman’s arrest. Coleman, who had been named Texas Lawman of the Year, was caught lying and tried for perjury. A judge referred to him as “the most devious, non-responsive law enforcement witness this court has witnessed in 25 years on the bench in Texas.”
Yet despite evidence showing a clear miscarriage of justice in the original trials, some Tulia residents held on to their belief that all those who had been arrested were guilty and that Coleman’s “mistakes” were merely legal technicalities. And as former defendants tried to mend their disrupted lives and the town attempted to resume life as usual, the residents of Tulia — both white and black — were left with feelings of suspicion and distrust of their neighbors. Tulia, Texas shows how America’s war on drugs and its over-zealous law enforcement, combined with racial divisions, have exposed deep-seated animosities and even starker injustices.