TULIA, Texas — July of this year will mark 20 years since a round of drug busts left an open wound on a town of 5,000 people in West Texas.
The arrests that happened all those years ago in Tulia are still impacting those who say they have been innocent since the beginning.
Christopher Jackson, Michelle White, and Kareem White were three of 46 people abruptly taken from their homes, arrested, and charged with various drug crimes in 1999. Each of them served four years in prison before being pardoned by Governor Rick Perry in 2003.
“Twenty years,” Jackson said. “I mean it’s like a nightmare everyday. Everyday we wake up. It’s like a nightmare.”
Jackson said he was charged with three counts of delivery of a controlled substance to an undercover officer, Tom Coleman.
Kareem White said he was charged with delivery as well.
“Delivery of 3.1 grams of cocaine and they gave me 60 years,” Kareem White said.
“He said I sold him 3-8 bottles of cocaine. Manufactured and delivered,” Michelle White said.
Ten percent of Tulia’s adult black community was arrested and charged with selling drugs to undercover officer Coleman.
All three said they felt forced to plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit. They accuse Coleman of racial prejudice.
“Justice was not served,” Michelle White said. “What he did and the way he did us and he corrupted our town.”
“All those cases were based on the word of a crooked cop,” said Jeff Blackburn, criminal defense lawyer and lead counsel for the Tulia 46. “One of the court appointed lawyers came to me and said, ‘Can you help out? Not for pay, just, can you take a look at what happened?'”
Blackburn said he went to a previous county where Coleman used to work and asked the courthouse clerk about him.
“I said, ‘Hey, there was this guy Tom Coleman that worked here. Do you guys know anything about him,'” Blackburn said. “Just a clerk at the county! The clerk said, ‘Really? Tom Coleman, huh?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ She goes, ‘Oh Honey.'”
Blackburn said the clerk brought him a big file with Coleman’s past.
“He was in a custody case down there,” he said. “He had been working there as a cop and then I found out the whole thing. What he had gotten in trouble for there, that he would pull people over and shake them down. I mean this guy is like a complete criminal.”
In a CBS interview with Ed Bradley’s 60 minutes special, Coleman defended his actions.
“No, I didn’t intentionally target anyone in Tulia,” Coleman said. “It just. It turns out that way. It’s just the way the road led me. It’s been hard. Yes sir, but I’m proud of what I did in Tulia.”
Christopher Jackson, Kareem White, and Michelle White said they never knew Tom Coleman personally.
“I didn’t know no Tom Coleman,” Jackson said.
“Lawyers told us we need to leave Tulia and I told them then, I’m not going anywhere because I haven’t done anything,” Michelle White said. “If I go anywhere, it’s going to go to heaven.”
Even though all three said they were innocent, Blackburn said it would have been a tough trial to win.
“Now some of them plead not guilty, went to trial and they were completely destroyed,” he said. “Sentences like 75 years. 40 years and that got the message out pretty quickly. You better plead guilty to this stuff.”
All three of them said even though they were pardoned in 2003, they have tried to move on, but the arrests still haunt them everyday.
“If we go put in an application, a job interview or anything. They ‘bla bla bla drug bust,'” Jackson said. “I lost my family you know. I mean, four years, who’s going to wait for you four years.”
“Even though we go to church with them and we go to the grocery stores with them, we’re still the same scum bags. Nothing changed,” Michelle White said. “I forgive him, but I ain’t going to forget it because it hurts every day.”
“I get up early, early,” Jackson said. “It’s just a habit man because you don’t know what they’re going to do. They did it once. Who says they won’t do it again?”
EDITOR’S NOTE: We reached out to the Tulia Police Department who said they didn’t want to comment on the story. We also reached out to Tulia’s Mayor and Sheriff and never heard back. Tom Coleman was indicted on three counts of perjury after the defendants were pardoned in 2003. He was indicted in a case connected to the Tulia 46.