Tulia post-mortem

After four years, the 38 (mostly black) defendants framed for drug dealing in the infamous Tulia, Texas cases are finally seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. A judge who held hearings on the cases at the direction of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has recommended that all the convictions be vacated, and prosecutors have indicated that they will not attempt to retry any of the defendants if the court follows that recommendation. There’s even a hint that the single officer whose obviously perjured testimony wrecked so many lives (and earned him a “Lawman of the Year” award) might be facing some criminal charges of his own.

Well, I’m glad to hear it. But if someone says “The system worked” I think I’m going to scream. A few things to think about before we start celebrating:

1. A dozen obviously innocent people are still in prison while the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals contemplates its navel. This is routine. No one treats freeing the innocent as an emergency: certainly no one in Texas.

2. Swisher County, where the trials were held, is offering between $2000 and $12000 to the victims, depending on how long they spent in prison. Those who were merely subject to invasions of their home, seizures of their persons, and humiliation will receive nothing. Every state needs a statutory scheme for compensating the actually innocent; almost no state has one.

3. Many of the defendants pleaded guilty because they were facing such obscene sentences if convicted: one who went to trial got 99 years. These life-and-after sentences aren’t just excessive for the guilty; they lead to the false imprisonment of the innocent. (Note that Congress just passed the Feeney Amendment, even further strengthening the hands of federal prosecutors in plea negotiations.)

4. The prosecutor who secured sentences of up to 99 years for obviously innocent people faces no professional consequences as a result. (I say “obviously innocent” because the cases involved such a large proportion of the residents of a poor, isolated town that there’s no way all of them could have been guilty: if they were all selling, who was buying?) This sort of conduct ought to be grounds for disbarment: a prosecutor going after someone he knows, or should know, is innocent is not ethically on a par with a defense attorney defending someone he knows or should know is guilty.

5. The Attorney General of Texas who refused to intervene in the cases, John Cornyn, is now a U.S. Senator. As far as I can tell, no reporter has asked him to comment, and he can expect to take no political damage from this incident.

6. The Governor of Texas who refused to intervene, or even say anything, is now President. The press corps never asked him a single question about this outrage during his Presidential campaign, and won’t now.

7. The United States Attorney General who sat on her thumb for a year and a half while the cases were being prosecuted is still a hero to many dimwitted liberals. The United Stats Attorney General who sat on his thumb as the evidence of innocence continued to pile up is still a hero to many dimwitted right-wingers. Even if the race of the defendants wasn’t enough to make this a civil rights case, the Justice Department could and should have been making noise about this to put pressure on the Texas authorities. Instead, Bob Herbert of the NY Times gets the credit for keeping the story alive.

8. The cases arose from one of the thousand or so multi-jurisdictional drug task forces funded by the federal government. These entities — in effect independent police agencies reporting to no local government whatever, but only to boards composed to the heads of other law enforcement agencies, and paid for not from appropriate funds but from grants and property forfeitures — are responsible for a wildly disproportionate share of the outrages in drug law enforcement. It’s time to shut them down.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com