The story of a small town's search for justice and the price Americans pay for the war on drugs.
Through its scrupulous investigation of a landmark case, Tulia, Texas uncovers the deep-rooted assumptions about race and crime that still permeate our society and undermines our justice system. The film convincingly shows how the 'war on drugs' has become a war on due process, waged against African Americans. Today America has the largest prison population in the world; in some states as much as 15 percent of the black male population is incarcerated. Tulia, Texas shows one reason why.
The film tells the story from multiple points of view, presenting the evidence in the order in which it came to light, putting viewers in the same position as the jury, judging the credibility of the prosecution's case. Then, as new facts surface after the trial, the audience is forced to question its own beliefs about the criminal justice system and the disproportionate number of African Americans it convicts.
Tulia appears to be a typical American small town located in the Texas Panhandle. Vacant storefronts line a Main Street straight out of the 1950's, suggesting that Tulia has been left behind by the tidal economic and cultural changes of the past fifty years. It has a small African American community, known as "Black Town", originally made up of agricultural laborers, since displaced by modernization. Many local black youth are unemployed; good jobs are still closed to them and some have turned to drugs. But it was only when drug use was perceived to have "crossed the tracks" to white neighborhoods that Tulia's civic leaders became alarmed. Here, as throughout the country, black youth became scapegoats for simmering white anxiety over social forces beyond their control and comprehension.
In response to drug hysteria fanned by the media and politicians, Tulia's sheriff called in a federally trained undercover agent, Tom Coleman, to conduct a sting operation. In a July 1999 dawn raid, local law enforcement rounded up dozens of people in Tulia and threw them behind bars. Of the 46 arrested, 39 of them were black, all charged with selling Coleman cocaine. Eight were prosecuted, found guilty and sentenced to unusually stiff jail terms of twenty to ninety-nine years. The rest, fearing similar punishment, agreed to plea bargains. Most had been represented by ill-prepared court appointed attorneys; the trials were quick and perfunctory; the juries convicted based on the time-honored Texas tradition of accepting the uncorroborated testimony of a law enforcement officer as proof of guilt.
And there matters would have stood had it not been for a determined group of townspeople, and a crusading Amarillo defense attorney, Jeff Blackburn, who decided to take a closer look at the evidence. He discovered numerous inconsistencies in Coleman's investigation: physical descriptions of perpetrators bore no resemblance to the actual defendants, crimes were allegedly committed on days Coleman was off-duty, and sales were reported at times when defendants were at work or out of town. As discrepancies started to leak out, the case attracted national media attention; In response, a multi-racial coalition, the "Friends of Justice," was formed in Tulia. Soon, Blackburn was joined by attorneys from the NAACP and ACLU, as well as one of the top law firms in the country. The team of lawyers helped win a hearing before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to present new evidence on behalf of several defendants. The lawyers also revealed the shocking discovery that Coleman himself had a criminal record. At the time he was working in Tulia, he was wanted on a warrant for theft in another county. The Sheriff and regional narcotics taskforce covered up the charges and put Coleman back to work. In addition to his legal entanglements, Coleman, had left several towns owing merchants thousands of dollars; one community where he had worked had asked that he be removed, while fellow officers testified that he had made frequent racist comments.
How could a man with such a record be empowered to put 46 people in prison, some for what amounted to life? Tulia Texas convincingly argues this was an inevitable consequence of the mass hysteria and vigilante law enforcement whipped up by the "War on Drugs." In the waning years of the Reagan administration, the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program was created to provide federal grants to special regional narcotics taskforces that partnered with local Sheriffs and police departments. Grants were renewed largely on the basis of the number of arrests, changing the strategy of law enforcement from apprehending drug kingpins to sweeps targeting low-level drug users. Undercover agents were hurriedly recruited often without background checks and sent into poor, mostly black communities. As one agent recalls, "it was all a question of numbers," a built-in mechanism for giving short shrift to due process, allowing racial stereotypes to trump reasonable doubt.
As a result of the revelations about Coleman, all the defendants were eventually set free and pardoned by the Texas governor. Coleman himself was convicted of perjury, but the West Texas jury gave him only a suspended sentence. As one of the former defendants sadly observes, many white residents of Tulia will always think Coleman's targets were guilty as charged. Neither the local sheriff nor regional narcotics officials have been held accountable for hiring Coleman and robbing so many innocent people of years of their lives. The underlying prejudices and policies that made the real crimes of Tulia possible are still widespread in American society. As of 2008, despite scandals involving more than 30 taskforces, 600 operations like the one in Tulia remain. Tulia, Texas challenges viewers to question the deep ties between race, poverty and the criminal justice system in this country.
Tulia, Texas abounds in lessons, from the most subtle to the most obvious, in how race continues to matter in criminal justice, and in the precarious nature of the civil rights and civil liberties of all Americans today. - Rhonda V. Magee, University of San Francisco School of Law All students and professionals working in criminal justice, psychology, racial and ethnic studies, and sociology are required to see this film. The production is magnificently accomplished. - Anthony J. Lemelle, Jr., John Jay College of Criminal Justice Tulia, Texas explains how racism becomes manifest in powerful, penetrating, and deleterious ways when institutional authorities and bureaucracies are caught up in a public hysteria about a social problem that is overwhelmingly inscribed in race and poverty." - Alford A. Young, Jr., University of Michigan Tulia,Texas shows how the "War on Drugs" became a virtual war on African Americans. It will make viewers think twice whenever they see a Black person accused of a crime. - Eva Paterson, Equal Justice Society A solidly crafted account of a disgraceful miscarriage of justice. Tulia, Texas compels interest with complex subjects and a fascinating narrative. - Variety Good teaching tool for race relations; recommended for race and ethnic inequality, social stratification, and criminal justice courses. - Cynthia T. Cook, Florida A & M University A maddening, harrowing, and jolting documentary, this is highly recommended, Editor's Choice. - Video Librarian
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