LUBBOCK, Texas – When former police officer Tom Coleman goes on trial, someone from his past plans to be watching in the courtroom: Joe Welton Moore (search), who spent four years in prison based on Coleman's discredited drug busts in Tulia (search).
Moore, who had been sentenced to 90 years, was one of dozens of people pardoned following a 2003 hearing to determine if some of the people arrested — most of them black — in the small farming community received fair trials.
Jury selection in Coleman's perjury trial was scheduled Monday, and was expected to last about a week. If convicted, he could face up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine on each felony charge.
Coleman, who is white, used no audio or video surveillance to substantiate drug buys he said he made while working in Tulia as an undercover agent for the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force (search).
No drugs or money were found during the arrests. He worked alone and kept no written records of his drug buys, except for incident reports, some which were later determined to be false.
Following the 18 months in the late 1990s in which Coleman built cases and made arrests, 38 people were convicted of selling small amounts of cocaine and received sentences of up to 90 years apiece.
The cases received international attention after civil rights groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (search), questioned whether the drug busts were racially motivated.
Coleman's trial on perjury charges centers on whether he lied about his own arrest record during evidentiary hearings for four defendants. John H. Read II, one of Coleman's attorneys, said the allegations are false and that the Coleman, 45, wants his day in court.
"He wasn't able to explain what he said at the hearing because it wasn't handled properly," Read said. "They never let him come back and clear up the misconceptions."
Ron Chapman, a retired state district judge who presided over the 2003 hearings, stopped Coleman's testimony when he, defense attorneys and prosecutors agreed that Coleman was "simply not a credible witness under oath."
Moore, once a pig farmer, was supposedly the drug kingpin of Tulia even though he lived in a rundown house with hog pens on the property. After a one-day trial, Moore, who has a previous narcotics felony on his record, was sentenced.
Despite losing his farm and spending four years in prison, Moore said he doesn't want Coleman to go to prison.
"Prison ain't no good place to be," Moore said.
The hearing to determine if Coleman's testimony was the sole basis for several convictions proved to be the first step toward pardons for most of the Tulia defendants.
In August 2003, Gov. Rick Perry (search) pardoned 35 of the 38 defendants who went to trial or accepted plea agreements. 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 that were involved with the task force.
Prosecutor Rod Hobson declined to comment for this story. However, Perry and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (search), who was Texas attorney general at the time of the Tulia drug busts, are among the 61 witnesses Hobson's office has subpoenaed to testify.