I have a deep and troubling concern in the law’s racist involvement with death: executions. I also have a deep and troubling concern in what too often passes for legal justice for black folks and poor folks. Texas led the nation in executions when George W. Bush was Governor, and that state then and now, is in the business of killing primarily young African-American and Mexicans males. Take a look at so-called justice, Texas style.
On the morning of July 23, 1999 in the hot and dusty little town of Tulia, Texas, in the Panhandle area some 50 miles south of Amarrillo, law enforcement people arrested 10% of all the blacks in that small town. Can you believe that? Officials tipped off the TV and radio people so they could parade these bewildered, unkempt, frightened blacks before the TV cameras for the evening news. The sheriff, a not-so-bright redneck, by the name of Larry Stewart, announced with great fanfare that all the people arrested were drug traffickers.
This elected nut with a badge was actually saying on TV that 10% of the black people in his town were trafficking in drugs. The people arrested included a hard-working pig farmer, a forklift operator and many ordinary young men, women and even some children. If these poor and frightened black folks were drug traffickers they were the strangest and poorest in this country. They had no money to speak of, no drugs and no weapons.
White folks in Tulia applauded the arrests, and the newspaper gave strong editorial approval for law enforcement “getting tough on crime.” Blacks in Tulia were frightened out of their wits. Convictions and stiff prison sentences followed the arrests. One of the few whites arrested is a man who fathered a so-called race-mixed child and he was sentenced to more than 300 years in prison.
The black hog farmer, in his 50s, Joe Moore was sentenced to 90 years. Kareem White, a 24-year-old black man was sentenced to 60 years. You get the picture. Nervous black folks still waiting to go on trial saw these extreme and outrages sentences being handed out by the white judge and they began scrambling to plead guilty in exchange for lighter sentences. Guilt or innocence had nothing to do with anything, and even after they pleaded guilty their sentences still ranged from 18 years down to probation.
These arrests and long prison sentences all came from the so-called undercover work of one white police officer who openly called black people “niggers.” Believe it or not, this fool claims he conducted an 18-month undercover drug operation all by himself. Can you believe that? Every arrest was made on his word alone. The man is Tom Coleman, and he has been in trouble with the law.
No police officer corroborated Coleman’s so-called undercover activities. Coleman did not wear a recording wire, conduct video surveillance and he didn’t even keep records of his alleged drug “buys.” Believe it or not, Coleman testified that he sometimes wrote important arrest information such as the name of suspects in ink on his leg. This type of sworn testimony from one white man was sufficient to send mostly black people to prison for decades.
In one case, Coleman testified that he had purchased drugs from a black woman named Tonya White and on his testimony alone she was charged with several serious felonies. A few weeks later, all the charges were dropped when her lawyer proved she was cashing a check 100 miles away in Oklahoma City at the time Coleman claimed she was selling drugs to him. Another person proved through time sheets at his job and the testimony of his white boss that he was on the job at the time Coleman testified he was buying drugs from him. The District Attorney, another racist nut, was forced to dismiss all the charge against another man, Yul Bryant, after Coleman described the man as “a tall black man with bushy hair.” Bryant is short and bald as an eagle.
The NAACP mounted an effort to help all these poor people, being rounded up and sent away for years and years on the uncorroborated word of Coleman. I called two white Texas trial lawyers who agreed to work several of these cases for free. In the end, virtually all these long prison sentences were revoked. Coleman was eventually fired and I understand later indicted for a crime or crimes unrelated to the arrests in Tulia.
What happened in Tulia is extreme only in the outrageous and extreme conduct of Coleman but law enforcement people, probation people, juvenile workers are all participants in an imperfect and often racist system that wields awesome and extreme power over poor white people and people of color. I don’t have to explain that one who lives in public housing, has more empathy for Laticia Green than for Martha Stewart, and that the reverse is true. It is also a fact, that if you are a white congressperson you probably voted for a lesser jail sentence for people convicted of possession powered cocaine and a higher sentence for people convicted of “crack” cocaine because mostly whites sniff powered cocaine and mostly blacks smoke “crack.”
If a politician tells me he is getting tough on crime, I ask which crimes and which criminals. The real difference between a $20,000 bond and a $2 million bond for a poor person is far more about politics, publicity and a denial of a fundamental constitutional right than anything else. I get sick of reading about some small black retailer of crack or marijuana busted on a local street corner who is probably a bigger menace to himself than anyone else and his bond being set at $750,000.
I am also sick of watching the TV image of this swaggering, uninformed, young, black man pleading guilty next to his inconsequential court-appointed lawyer trying his best to look serious. The young man is sent off to an overcrowded, dehumanizing prison system where he can really learn how to move up in the deadly world of drugs, death and crime.
That, my friends, is what I have been speaking and writing about in utter disgust for years. It is a terrible situation and needs quick correction before it destroys us all.
J.L. Chestnut, Jr. is a civil rights attorney in Selma, Alabama. He is the founder of Chestnut, Sanders and Sanders which is the largest black law firm in Alabama. Born in Selma and, after graduating from Howard University Law School, he began practicing law in Selma in 1958. He started as the only black lawyer in the town and has been challenging the establishment since then. His law firm now owns two radio stations in Selma and Mr. Chestnut hosts a radio talk show three days a week touted as the most popular radio show in south and central Alabama. He is the author of “Black in Selma” with Julia Cass (1989 Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and writes a weekly column called the “Hard Cold Truth”. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.