LUBBOCK, Texas – The lone undercover agent in a sting that sent dozens of black people to prison on bogus drug charges in Tulia was convicted Friday of one of two perjury counts, and may serve his sentence on probation.
Tom Coleman (search) was acquitted of testifying falsely in a 2003 hearing that as a sheriff's deputy he never stole gas from county pumps, but he was found guilty of saying that he did not learn about the theft charge against him until August 1998.
Jurors deliberated his punishment for less than an hour before recommending probation. They sentenced him to seven years in prison, but because he didn't have any prior felony convictions decided that he could serve the time on probation.
The judge agreed and will rule Tuesday on the length and terms of the sentence.
Coleman shut his eyes and dropped his head when the judge spoke of the seven-year prison sentence. He started to fight back tears when hearing that jurors said he could serve it on probation.
John H. Read II, Coleman's defense attorney, said probation "is punishment enough."
But prosecutors said he deserved a harsher punishment, going into detail about the Tulia drug busts (search) for the first time in the trial.
Coleman arrested 46 people, most of them black, in the small, mostly white farming community of Tulia. He worked alone and used no audio or video surveillance, and no drugs were ever found, but 38 defendants were convicted or reached plea deals.
Gov. Rick Perry (search) pardoned 35 of the defendants in 2003, after an investigation into the drug cases was launched amid charges they were racially motivated. It was during the investigation that Coleman made his false statement in court.
Coleman could not prosecuted for testimony he gave at the drug defendants' trials because the statute of limitations had expired.
Freddie Brookins Jr., one of the people sent to prison on Coleman's word, told jurors that he was bitter about being convicted of something he didn't do.
"I missed seeing my kids grow up," said Brookins, 27, who was pardoned by the governor.
Prosecutor Rod Hobson said Coleman deserves prison time because "people went to prison, Freddie Brookins went to prison, because of his worthless words. He should be held accountable for that."
The perjury charges stemmed from Coleman's testimony in hearings for former Tulia defendants to determine whether they got fair trials. He was questioned about an arrest for using a government-issued gasoline card to fill his personal vehicle while he was working as a Cochran County deputy. He lied about when he first knew about the theft charge, which was dropped after Coleman paid restitution.
Coleman built cases and made arrests for 18 months in the late 1990s as part of a drug task force. Those convicted of selling small amounts of cocaine and received sentences of up to 90 years, and many served up to four years before they were pardoned.
Last year, 45 of those arrested split a $6 million settlement of a civil rights lawsuit against Coleman and the 26 counties and three cities involved with the drug task force for which he worked.