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

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In the summer of 1999, in the tiny west Texas town of Tulia, thirty-nine people, almost all of them black, were arrested and charged with dealing powdered cocaine. The operation, a federally-funded investigation performed in cooperation with the local authorities, was based on the work of one notoriously unreliable undercover officer. At trial, the prosecution relied almos In the summer of 1999, in the tiny west Texas town of Tulia, thirty-nine people, almost all of them black, were arrested and charged with dealing powdered cocaine. The operation, a federally-funded investigation performed in cooperation with the local authorities, was based on the work of one notoriously unreliable undercover officer. At trial, the prosecution relied almost solely on the uncorroborated, and contradictory, testimony of that officer, Tom Coleman. Despite the flimsiness of the evidence against them, virtually all of the defendants were convicted and given sentences as high as ninety-nine years. Tom Coleman was named a Texas Lawman of the Year for his work.Tulia is the story of this town, the bust, the trials, and the heroic legal battle that ultimately led to the reversal of the convictions in the summer of 2003. Laws have been changed in Texas as a result of the scandal, and the defendants have earned a measure of bittersweet redemption. But the story is much bigger than the tale of just one bust. As Tulia makes clear, these events are the latest chapter in a story with themes as old as the country itself. It is a gripping, marvelously well-told tale about injustice, race, poverty, hysteria, and desperation in rural America.


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In the summer of 1999, in the tiny west Texas town of Tulia, thirty-nine people, almost all of them black, were arrested and charged with dealing powdered cocaine. The operation, a federally-funded investigation performed in cooperation with the local authorities, was based on the work of one notoriously unreliable undercover officer. At trial, the prosecution relied almos In the summer of 1999, in the tiny west Texas town of Tulia, thirty-nine people, almost all of them black, were arrested and charged with dealing powdered cocaine. The operation, a federally-funded investigation performed in cooperation with the local authorities, was based on the work of one notoriously unreliable undercover officer. At trial, the prosecution relied almost solely on the uncorroborated, and contradictory, testimony of that officer, Tom Coleman. Despite the flimsiness of the evidence against them, virtually all of the defendants were convicted and given sentences as high as ninety-nine years. Tom Coleman was named a Texas Lawman of the Year for his work.Tulia is the story of this town, the bust, the trials, and the heroic legal battle that ultimately led to the reversal of the convictions in the summer of 2003. Laws have been changed in Texas as a result of the scandal, and the defendants have earned a measure of bittersweet redemption. But the story is much bigger than the tale of just one bust. As Tulia makes clear, these events are the latest chapter in a story with themes as old as the country itself. It is a gripping, marvelously well-told tale about injustice, race, poverty, hysteria, and desperation in rural America.

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

  1. 4 out of 5

    Snotchocheez

    I drug this out from the bottom of my ever-growing thrift store to-read-someday pile when I read something about Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton slated to star in a biopic based on this book. If they are true to the source material, Tulia could be an amazing movie. The true story of a mass drug bust in the small Texas panhandle town of Tulia (south of Amarillo) in 1999: from the pre-dawn raids that jailed 47 (mostly black) Tulians (ranging in age from 16 to 62) without turning up a single gra I drug this out from the bottom of my ever-growing thrift store to-read-someday pile when I read something about Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton slated to star in a biopic based on this book. If they are true to the source material, Tulia could be an amazing movie. The true story of a mass drug bust in the small Texas panhandle town of Tulia (south of Amarillo) in 1999: from the pre-dawn raids that jailed 47 (mostly black) Tulians (ranging in age from 16 to 62) without turning up a single gram of evidence, based solely on the non-corroborated testimony of a single rogue undercover cop, to the overzealous rural legal system that effectively precluded the defendants from obtaining adequate representation, is one of the ugliest miscarriages of jurisprudence (and sorriest examples of the inefficacy of "The War on Drugs") I've ever encountered. A well-written book on a modern-day embarrassment: I'm hoping "Tulia" the movie will be even more effective in swaying public opinion (and, in turn, the socio-political train of thought) away from criminalization (which has proven to be ineffective, and costly on so many levels) and more toward rehabilitation (and, hopefully, dismantling a broken system to prevent the travesty of justice that occurred in Tulia from ever happening again).

  2. 4 out of 5

    Bryan

    This is a great book. It's written in a measured, dry tone, completely avoiding the hyperbolic, irritating language that you tend to find in left-leaning books on current events. The result is that you a real-time sense of a legal disaster (and redemption) playing out. Moreover, the author is careful to allow some empathy (if not sympathy) for the local sheriff and district attorney who, even if they weren't actively involved in fabricating drug cases, were complicit after the fact. This reminde This is a great book. It's written in a measured, dry tone, completely avoiding the hyperbolic, irritating language that you tend to find in left-leaning books on current events. The result is that you a real-time sense of a legal disaster (and redemption) playing out. Moreover, the author is careful to allow some empathy (if not sympathy) for the local sheriff and district attorney who, even if they weren't actively involved in fabricating drug cases, were complicit after the fact. This reminded me another great book about Texas, HG Bissinger's Friday Night Lights. Both books have these narrow ostenisble subjects but are really also about the social and cultural history of the same region. Both also suggest that each story could only be a product of a type of sadness and desperation specific to the Texas panhandle. It kind of makes me curious to visit, but only for a few hours.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Dawn

    Having grown up not far from Tulia, I remember this case. I remembered thinking , "That's a small town. How are there so many drugs there?" when the local news reported the busts. The sad thing is, the thoughts around race are still there, throughout the Panhandle. It's books like this that bring the narrow mindedness front and center, and make you take a look at the way things are there. Blakeslee did a great job of reporting the history of Tulia to help the reader understand why people there t Having grown up not far from Tulia, I remember this case. I remembered thinking , "That's a small town. How are there so many drugs there?" when the local news reported the busts. The sad thing is, the thoughts around race are still there, throughout the Panhandle. It's books like this that bring the narrow mindedness front and center, and make you take a look at the way things are there. Blakeslee did a great job of reporting the history of Tulia to help the reader understand why people there think the way they do. He also did a great job of weaving the history into the defendants' stories. This was an easy read, and an important one for all Panhandle natives to read.

  4. 5 out of 5

    James

    I lived in Texas during the majority of this book's events, and I was woefully ignorant about what was happening in Tulia, a tiny panhandle Texas town where a corrupt undercover narcotics officer falsely convicted scores of the town's African-American residents in pursuit of a Texas Lawman of the Year honors. A bracing, maddening story told in clear, concise prose by Blakeslee, who never tips the story over into legalese or jargon. He keeps his sights firmly on the families that were deeply affe I lived in Texas during the majority of this book's events, and I was woefully ignorant about what was happening in Tulia, a tiny panhandle Texas town where a corrupt undercover narcotics officer falsely convicted scores of the town's African-American residents in pursuit of a Texas Lawman of the Year honors. A bracing, maddening story told in clear, concise prose by Blakeslee, who never tips the story over into legalese or jargon. He keeps his sights firmly on the families that were deeply affected, the tiny community that exploded into the national consciousness, and the webs of lies that a corrupt system wove to protect one crooked cop. I would recommend this book in conjunction with "Friday Night Lights" by Buzz Bissinger. I plan on also reading about Jasper, TX this year as well, in addition to reading some more border literature. These Texas stories are extremely powerful and moving.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Jackson

    I had never heard of what happened in Tulia in 1999. Several times I had to stop reading and put the book down because I was so mad at what was happening. The injustice that was shown to some of the defendants was infuriating. The law enforcement at the time behaved horribly; I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't read this book. Even though this is nonfiction, it reads like fiction. Because of court records and transcripts, Blakeslee is able to recreate the courtroom scenes so that they don't I had never heard of what happened in Tulia in 1999. Several times I had to stop reading and put the book down because I was so mad at what was happening. The injustice that was shown to some of the defendants was infuriating. The law enforcement at the time behaved horribly; I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't read this book. Even though this is nonfiction, it reads like fiction. Because of court records and transcripts, Blakeslee is able to recreate the courtroom scenes so that they don't read like an informational text. There are a few chapters, however that give detailed background information about the town, west Texas, laws and the court system that got a bit tedious, but it didn't stop me from reading.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Katie

    Easy on the eyes, moves quickly, and a discouraging look at American justice. More than 40 people, nearly all black, were framed for drug crimes they didn't commit. In fact, no one committed the crimes--they were nearly all fabricated. The longest sentence was 361 years. Although the police and prosecutorial corruption were exposed almost immediately, it took years to get the convictions overturned. This happened in a small west Texas town, but the author makes clear that similar injustices can Easy on the eyes, moves quickly, and a discouraging look at American justice. More than 40 people, nearly all black, were framed for drug crimes they didn't commit. In fact, no one committed the crimes--they were nearly all fabricated. The longest sentence was 361 years. Although the police and prosecutorial corruption were exposed almost immediately, it took years to get the convictions overturned. This happened in a small west Texas town, but the author makes clear that similar injustices can and do happen nationwide, due to the way our anti-drug efforts are conducted, the lack of oversight, and the continued racism in our society.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Monalesia

    One of the most gripping and compelling books I've read in a very long time, Tulia lived up to every single word of praise lavished upon it, and its author, by all the usual suspects: New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, etc. As a woman of color living in a time when America has finally come to its senses and elected a true champion of the people as President, this book throws a bucket of really cold water on anyone who thinks we really have arrived. We haven't; One of the most gripping and compelling books I've read in a very long time, Tulia lived up to every single word of praise lavished upon it, and its author, by all the usual suspects: New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, etc. As a woman of color living in a time when America has finally come to its senses and elected a true champion of the people as President, this book throws a bucket of really cold water on anyone who thinks we really have arrived. We haven't; not at all, but people like Nate Blakeslee (the author of this outstanding book) gives us all plenty of reasons to keep on trying.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

    I love a story that hinges on meticulous attention to detail and boxes and boxes of indexed documentation. This well-researched non-fiction book reads like a legal thriller, and though I read it because I thought it would be edifying (and it was), I read it quickly because it was riveting. Sneaky, sneaky, the author illustrates the need for civil rights fights to focus on the criminal justice system, the prison industrial complex and the utter failure of the War on Drugs, but without being didac I love a story that hinges on meticulous attention to detail and boxes and boxes of indexed documentation. This well-researched non-fiction book reads like a legal thriller, and though I read it because I thought it would be edifying (and it was), I read it quickly because it was riveting. Sneaky, sneaky, the author illustrates the need for civil rights fights to focus on the criminal justice system, the prison industrial complex and the utter failure of the War on Drugs, but without being didactic or preachy.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Stephen

    If you want to know what West Texas is like, here you go. While I live in a large city unlike Tulia, you can even see those elements at work here. There's a lot in this book and it's well reported. Racism. Unequal access to the law. The disgusting falsehood of small town "charm." I think the shadow hovering over the entire book, however, is that West Texas (especially small town) is dying. In fact, it's really already economically and socially dead, it's just sort of shambling on and doesn't know If you want to know what West Texas is like, here you go. While I live in a large city unlike Tulia, you can even see those elements at work here. There's a lot in this book and it's well reported. Racism. Unequal access to the law. The disgusting falsehood of small town "charm." I think the shadow hovering over the entire book, however, is that West Texas (especially small town) is dying. In fact, it's really already economically and socially dead, it's just sort of shambling on and doesn't know it yet.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    This book is a fascinating look inside both the history of a small Texas town and the current state of American criminal justice. It shows how messed up a big swath of our system is, and also is a really compelling read. I sound like a blurb on the back or something, but by the end I really thought I was back to 8th grade and reading "The Rainmaker" by John Grisham or something, the maneuvering and lawyering was so engaging...

  11. 5 out of 5

    Marik Casmon

    Another very fine book on our legal system, this time concerning an egregious miscarriage of justice by anti=drug forces--cops, prosecutors, and a judge-- in a Texas town. Are you going to get called for jury duty? Read a couple of the books I've recently rated. Once again, though, there are heroes, local figures and attorneys, as well as national attorneys, who dedicate themselves to justice and due process at incredible personal sacrifice.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Chris

    good book, shocking story. incredible how negligent the oversight was in the criminal investigation and prosecution. down side was, it was one of those books taht seemed to me like it woudl have made a great in depth New Yorker article- but as a book it went a little long. That said, the insight to small town texas, race relations and lower middle class politics and economics makes it a worthwhile read.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

    This book was a roller coaster for me. At first, I was just angry that people were treated with such absurdity under the auspice of the law, but that anger was necessary to be able to fully celebrate the turnaround of circumstances when the right people began to care about achieving real justice for the citizens of this town.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jessie

    This was a great book. Great reporting, great writing. I have tremendous respect for Nate Blakeslee as well as for everyone on the defense team--they really gave of themselves to make sure that a very important story got an audience, both in the courtroom and in the world at large. I'm amazed, too, that Blakeslee was able to explain the intricacies of law so clearly.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Jannell

    Great book for what it is. Put it down once or twice but always came back to finish. Well read with good sidebar discusss so quite a bit is learned about America's drug war & the ridiculous funding mechanisms & terrible laws we have allowed to happen. Along the way the Tulia story is told in all its grating glory. Great book for what it is. Put it down once or twice but always came back to finish. Well read with good sidebar discusss so quite a bit is learned about America's drug war & the ridiculous funding mechanisms & terrible laws we have allowed to happen. Along the way the Tulia story is told in all its grating glory.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Leah

    Absolutely fascinating book about Texas criminal justice system. As a west Texan with family from Tulia, I don't know that Blakeslee always paints the town in a fair light but the book is well-written and seems to be well-researched. Definitely worth a read if you like true crime stories, or are just interested in west Texas history.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Sabrina

    Crazy! I drove through this town about a month ago on a road trip. That's why I recognized the name. I definitely plan on reading this. I knew there was still racism in this country, especially in the south, but it's still amazing (and not in a good way, of course) to see how recent it is..

  18. 5 out of 5

    Connie

    This is an eye-opening book that demonstrates to me that racism is "alive and well". Fascinating account of our justice system. Fortunately, those who were framed and put in prison were eventually exonerated.

  19. 4 out of 5

    David Quinn

    The level of corruption, ignorance and incompetence in the law enforcement community in Tulia in this day and age was shocking to me (although I'm not sure why). This is a good book to read if you want to get your blood boiling.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Sherri

    no such thing as a "little lie". amazing story of what can go wrong when too much power lies in the hands of one man. Especially one who has a racist bent

  21. 4 out of 5

    Meeta Anand

    Well-written, riveting, and disturbing insofar as it is a true account. Should be a must-read for every criminal law class (and a few Supreme Court justices).

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jessye

    I was disappointed with this book after falling in love with his other one, American Wolf. It has way too many facts with not enough story momentum. I only got 50 pages in before I put it down and couldn't pick it back up.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Wilson Lanue

    This is a story of America's huge but little-covered rural drug war. It's the story of one nation's criminal justice system, its biases, and the convolution that keeps most poor defendants from the slightest hope of due process. It is also one of the most engaging books I have ever opened. (view spoiler)[The truth is, it's unusual as a true story only for the in-depth coverage it has received (particularly in this book, a stellar piece of reporting) and the fact that it has a happier ending than m This is a story of America's huge but little-covered rural drug war. It's the story of one nation's criminal justice system, its biases, and the convolution that keeps most poor defendants from the slightest hope of due process. It is also one of the most engaging books I have ever opened. (view spoiler)[The truth is, it's unusual as a true story only for the in-depth coverage it has received (particularly in this book, a stellar piece of reporting) and the fact that it has a happier ending than most. It's the story of a cop who lied to make a name for himself. Of a church-leader-cum-sheriff who covered up for him. Of a drunk-driving DA who made his career prosecuting DWIs, who withheld critical evidence from the defense and then lied about it in open court. Of a judge, once an idealistic defense attorney, who stacked the deck against a fair trial. Of great men like Paul Holloway, a court-appointed defender with enough faith in the system to do his job on a level usually reserved for television attorneys - enough faith, that is, to be broken when the system proved too corrupt to care. Of Freddie Brookins Sr., who told his son it was wrong to lie: If he was innocent, he shouldn't take a deal. (Consequently, Freddie Jr. was sentenced to 20 in years prison.) Of Gary Gardner, a diabetic farmer self-taught in the law, an old-timer who considered the n-word normal parlance but who spent thousands of dollars and countless hours fighting for the rights of wrongly convicted African-Americans. It is the story, ultimately, of dozens of men and women convicted based on demonstrable lies. Of human beings sent to prison with sentences that ranged to 361 years. Of two defendants who remained in prison until 2011, despite the fact that the case against them was proven, in court, to be nonsense in 2003. (hide spoiler)] The book is detailed and provocative (some readers will cry, others will rage, and many will do both), and - vitally - never loses sight of its story's humanity. Myriad participants are vividly portrayed, from a stereotypical blustering attorney to a tender law graduate and even the character who filed a writ repeatedly referring to a prosecution witness as a "Liar, a Thief, and a Whoremonger." My sole complaint is that the author ignores Associated Press style where, in my mind, he shouldn't (as a copy editor, I cringed every time "over" appeared in place of "more than" - often multiple times per page). But of all I've ever read more rigorous in grammatical style, I can think of precious little to compete with this volume for deep reporting or genuine importance. Or, for that matter, for the ability to make me laugh out loud even in the face of systematic debasement. I recommend this book unequivocally. Everyone should read it.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Backoff51

    When I read a really good book, I compare it to my all time favorite, Lonesome Dove, and when I finish the last page, I ask myself it I wished there were another few chapters. Tulia came out very worthy on both of these evaluation factors. Blakeslee did a great job. The book was like one long newspaper article with fact after fact in every paragraph. I mean that in a very good way.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie Harris

    Outstanding. I've owned this since it came out in 2005, but for some reason just got around to reading it. My husband was a drug task force prosecutor in another jurisdiction in Texas during much of the time of the events recounted here. Based on that experience, I feel it is important to point out that there was good work being done by credible and conscientious people in other DTFs, but I agree that the structure of the DTFs as described here was conducive to abuses. And man, oh man, were the Outstanding. I've owned this since it came out in 2005, but for some reason just got around to reading it. My husband was a drug task force prosecutor in another jurisdiction in Texas during much of the time of the events recounted here. Based on that experience, I feel it is important to point out that there was good work being done by credible and conscientious people in other DTFs, but I agree that the structure of the DTFs as described here was conducive to abuses. And man, oh man, were the abuses in Tulia egregious. When the Texas legislature passes legislation to allow specific defendants a right to bond while the Court of Criminal Appeals (which once refused to take a last ditch appeal for a death row inmate after 5:00 p.m.) considers their cases, and when Rick Perry pardons those defendants, you know it was bad. Seriously, that confluence of events (the actions of the legislature and the governor's office) is unimaginable to me. I found it interesting that these defendants experienced both sides of the unfortunate truth that money buys justice. They had county funded representation at their trials, paid for at rates that hardly justify getting out of bed in the morning. Some of their lawyers were just bad, others just underfunded. For their post-conviction work, they had what we small town lawyers call "tall building lawyers", wealthy big firm lawyers who could afford to devote countless hours, manpower and resources to work they believed in. As a lawyer, I find really excellent lawyering to be a beautiful thing, and there was some really beautiful lawyering described here. For non-lawyers who don't geek out over these things as I do, the book is well-written and is a compelling read. Highly recommend.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Ron

    It's sometimes hard to think of books that look kindly on West Texas, from Dorothy Scarborough's "The Wind" to H. G. Bissinger's "Friday Night Lights." Add "Tulia" to the list. Its story of overzealous, small-town justice casts a harsh light of judgment on a system that used a questionable drug enforcement program to railroad citizens, most of them black, into prison. Blakeslee's 400+ pages of investigative reporting tell a compelling story of a perfect storm involving a sheriff, prosecuting att It's sometimes hard to think of books that look kindly on West Texas, from Dorothy Scarborough's "The Wind" to H. G. Bissinger's "Friday Night Lights." Add "Tulia" to the list. Its story of overzealous, small-town justice casts a harsh light of judgment on a system that used a questionable drug enforcement program to railroad citizens, most of them black, into prison. Blakeslee's 400+ pages of investigative reporting tell a compelling story of a perfect storm involving a sheriff, prosecuting attorney, and judge whose lack of due diligence and apparent racial bias get them into deep trouble with a totally unethical undercover agent. It's also a story of a handful of lawyers and concerned citizens who over a period of several years manage to enlist the support of civil libertarians and the media to expose the injustice and exonerate the defendants who had been unjustly convicted. In the book, there is a huge cast of characters, and without the help of its index, it's sometimes hard to keep track of them all. But Blakeslee brings them all to life, and with the gifts of a good novelist, manages to maintain the threads of many different story-lines as they interweave and eventually converge on the habeas hearing that reveals the actual nature of events leading to the false arrests. Finally, the book reveals to a degree some of the circumstances contributing to the large population of ethnic minorities in the nation's prisons, and it provides evidence to support arguments that the proper focus of civil rights legislation today is the judicial system itself.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Bookmarks Magazine

    "No novelist could have made up such an account and been deemed credible," writes the San Francisco Chronicle. Yet every detail in Tulia is true. Expertly researched and written, Tulia offers a shocking portrait of racial profiling and bigotry in rural America. In writing this tale, Blakeslee never fails to put the defendants' stories in the context of black-white race relations, drug-enforcement task forces, and corrupt police forces. Nor (to the chagrin of a few critics, who found the characte "No novelist could have made up such an account and been deemed credible," writes the San Francisco Chronicle. Yet every detail in Tulia is true. Expertly researched and written, Tulia offers a shocking portrait of racial profiling and bigotry in rural America. In writing this tale, Blakeslee never fails to put the defendants' stories in the context of black-white race relations, drug-enforcement task forces, and corrupt police forces. Nor (to the chagrin of a few critics, who found the characters hard to follow) does he omit a single defendant or lawyer involved in the case. Coleman in particular comes off as an incompetent, despicable man unable to live up to his father's reputation as a respected Texas Ranger. Though depressing, Tulia is ultimately a story of triumph. Read the book__or wait for the film.This is an excerpt from a review published in Bookmarks magazine.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Chester

    Really well written investigative journalism into a huge drug scandal in a small Texas town. I thought it was a wildly interesting topic.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jill hobbs

    A shocking expose about the great red-neck legal system of Texas.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Julia

    This is an important book, and one that is extremely satisfying to read.

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