ACLU Welcomes Bond Hearing for Tulia 13, Says Reform Still Needed

Affiliate: ACLU of Texas
June 16, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — Saying that 13 wrongly convicted individuals swept up in the racially charged Tulia drug scandal are one step closer to vindication, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas both welcomed the release of the men and women at a special bond hearing in Texas and applauded a statement released this afternoon by several prominent Members of Congress expressing solidarity with the Tulia defendants.

“We celebrate today’s release on bond of the 13 wrongly convicted,” said Will Harrell, Executive Director of the ACLU of Texas, speaking at an Open Society Institute news conference at which a joint statement by several Members of Congress was released to the press.

“We welcome and applaud Congressional efforts to ensure that the travesty of Tulia not continue to ruin lives and undermine our criminal justice system,” Harrell added. “Hopefully, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will bolster these efforts by fully vacating the sentences of all those swept up in this terrible affair.”

The 13 were among 46 African-American residents of the Texas Panhandle town of Tulia — a full 10 percent of the local black population — who were arrested on felony drug charges based on the testimony from a single undercover agent who has been accused of racial prejudice and now faces charges of perjury. In April, a Dallas judge threw out the drug convictions of 38 of the 46 because of the agent’s questionable testimony.

Over the past year, the Tulia scandal has attracted national attention and deep concern. The statement today by Reps. John Conyers (D-MI), Charles B. Rangel (D-NY), Robert C. Scott (D-VA), Melvin Watt (D-NC), Maxine Waters (D-CA) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) reflected growing concern over the case. Significantly, while not a signatory of today’s statement, House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) has pledged “aggressive oversight” of the federal taskforce responsible for hiring the undercover agent.

Nearly 40 other human rights, civil liberties, criminal justice and faith-based groups also endorsed the statement.

Today’s special bail hearing in Tulia was made possible in part by a bill that Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) signed into law last week that allows a judge — once prosecutors and defense attorneys have agreed — to release convicted persons on bond or on their own recognizance. The 13 still have to have their cases reviewed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which will ultimately rule on a district judge’s recommendation that all the convictions be overturned.

The ACLU of Texas and a number of other advocacy groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), have been working since the Tulia scandal broke to push an aggressive criminal justice reform campaign in the state legislature.

The coalition has worked with legislators to pass a law that requires the corroboration of testimony of confidential informants before a person can be convicted; pass a comprehensive racial profiling law, and reform the state’s indigent defense system by requiring higher standards for attorneys appointed to represent indigents and allocating more resources for their defense.

A bill that would abolish the regional narcotics task forces like the one responsible for the Tulia round up failed to pass the legislature, but its defeat was largely procedural, not substantive. “Even without legislation, the state has already dismantled five of these task forces – Austin is clearly getting the picture,” the ACLU’s Harrell said.

In December, the ACLU of Texas released a report calling for an end to the state’s $200 million regional narcotics task force system, citing pervasive racial profiling and 24 major drug scandals since 1998.

The report is available online in PDF format at:

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