Monday, January 18, 2010

Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town

On one morning, members of a drug task force arrested forty-seven people for dealing cocaine. Forty-seven is a lot of drug dealers for a town of 5,000 people, and some people might have been struck by the coincidence that not one of them had cocaine when the surprise busts were made. But still, prosecutions went ahead and most of the suspects were convicted and given substantial sentences.

In Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town (HV8079.N3 B55 2005 at Good Reads) reporter Nate Blakeslee explores all the things that went wrong -- the dishonest undercover cop, the sheriff who ignored repeated warning signs (even an indictment of the cop for theft from another county), the prosecutor who pressed on and stonewalled anything negative, the court-appointed counsel who didn't do much, the judge who didn't let the defense attorneys question the cop's background, the newspaper who assumed the guilt of all charged, the white community that was eager to believe the worst of the black defendants.

He also explores some things that went right -- a few community members (white and black) who advocated for the defendants, sending out mailings to get some media attention, the Texas Observer story (written by Blakeslee), the national media coverage, the New York drug reform advocate, attorneys from Texas, DC, and New York who handled the habeas case and civil suits.

Blakeslee followed the events in Tulia after his first magazine article. He attended court hearings, interviewed defendants and family members, and pored over trial transcripts. He brings to this legal tale background about the community and the families entangled in the arrests.

Blakeslee gives an inside view of the legal maneuverings -- the judge's decisions to exclude certain evidence from the original trials, the different level of investigation by the different court-appointed attorneys, the involvement of the Texas ACLU (search for "tulia" to learn about advocacy related to the case), the litigation strategy of the habeas team, and some beautiful cross-examination in the habeas hearing. The habeas team was spearheaded by Vanita Gupta, a young lawyer at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, fresh out of law school and funded by a Soros fellowship. She threw herself into the case and recruited the "dream team" of lawyers from DC and New York law firms.* Blakeslee had access to the team and so could write with immediacy of the "war room" discussions and the teamwork involved in the litigation. Behind one lawyer's brilliant cross-examination, for instance, was another lawyer's painstaking work culling through transcripts to find the undercover officer's previous misstatements.

Blakeslee makes it clear that he does not think that the injustice in Tulia is unique to that time and place, and he discusses more general issues about multi-jurisdictional drug task forces and the indigent defense system. In a closing chapter, he reports some reforms implemented in Texas in response to the Tulia events.

You can preview Tulia on Google Books, and of course you can check the whole book out from the library.

* For profiles of and interviews with Gupta see New York Times (April 16, 2003), NYU Law (Jan. 2004)), Rediff India Abroad (Dec. 8, 2004), and Wikipedia.

No comments: