Racial Discrimination Charged by ACLU in Notorious Drug Bust Scandal

Affiliate: ACLU of Texas
September 29, 2000 12:00 am

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ACLU of Texas
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Friday, September 29, 2000

AUSTIN, TX–The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas today filed a lawsuit charging racial discrimination and conspiracy in an undercover drug bust that led to the arrest of almost 10 percent of the African American population of Tulia, a rural farming and ranching community of about 5,000.

“This is a gross miscarriage of justice with clear racial motivations,” said William Harrell, Executive Director of the Texas ACLU, who announced the lawsuit at a rally here today joined by Tulia residents who traveled more than seven hours by bus to attend.

“The ACLU is forwarding all relevant documents in the case to the United States attorney and urging that office to bring criminal prosecutions against Tulia officials,” Harrell said.

The ACLU lawsuit was filed on behalf of Tulia resident Yul Bryant, who spent seven months in jail before a drug possession charge against him was dropped and he was released, according to legal papers. The lawsuit seeks $1 million in actual damages and $1 million in punitive damages.

“These unlawful actions were part of a deliberate plan, scheme and policy of targeting members of the African-American community of Swisher County, Texas and removing them from the area using the legal system,” the ACLU said in legal papers.

Bryant is one of 45 people — all but three of them African-American — who were arrested and indicted on drug charges last year. His case was dismissed after District Attorney Terry McEachern learned that undercover agent Thomas Coleman was not certain he had bought cocaine from Bryant. The lawsuit accuses McEachern, Coleman and Sheriff Larry Stewart of falsely arresting, imprisoning and prosecuting Bryant, who is black.

According to the ACLU lawsuit, Stewart prepared a list of local citizens and others he considered “undesirables” before enacting a policy to strong-arm them out of Swisher County. Most of the people listed are black, the lawsuit claims, and McEachern was part of Stewart’s plan. Coleman was put to work as an “undercover agent” to try and help Stewart, the lawsuit alleges.

ACLU volunteer attorney Jeff Blackburn, along with attorneys Van Williamson and Jeff Frazier, is also handing some appeals of individuals wrongly convicted on the basis of evidence provided by Sheriff Coleman.

“What happened in Tulia is an abomination and an injustice that has done incredible damage to a lot of human beings,” said Blackburn, a civil rights attorney in the Panhandle and West Texas. “The people of Tulia and their families deserve a real day in court.”

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