TULIA, Texas – Gov. Rick Perry (search) on Friday pardoned 35 people who were arrested in the 1999 Tulia drug busts (search) and convicted based on the testimony of a lone undercover agent later charged with perjury.
"I believe my decision to grant pardons in these cases is both appropriate and just," Perry said in a statement.
The governor said he was influenced by questions about the testimony of Tom Coleman, the only undercover agent involved in the busts. In June, Perry signed a bill allowing the release of the 12 Tulia defendants who were still in prison.
The father of a man sentenced to 20 years in prison on Coleman's word called Friday's pardons "fantastic."
"We've been waiting for this for four years," said Freddie Brookins Sr., whose son was released in June.
An attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (search), which marshaled law firms in New York and Washington to represent the defendants for free, said Perry did the right thing.
"This is just really incredible news. This is what we saw the facts showed," said the lawyer, Vanita Gupta.
Coleman had worked alone and used no audio or video surveillance to substantiate drug buys he said he made from 46 people from Tulia, a small town of about 5,100 residents 60 miles north of Lubbock.
Of the 46 people arrested in July 1999, 39 were black, which led civil rights groups to question if the busts were racially motivated.
A judge this spring ruled that Coleman was "simply not a credible witness" and recommended the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturn the convictions of the 38 people prosecuted and order new trials. Coleman was indicted for perjury in April and faces a preliminary hearing next month.
The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, asked by Perry to review the cases, unanimously recommended the pardons last month.
Of those convicted and but not pardoned, one is on deferred probation and two were not eligible to seek pardons because of convictions on other charges.
Also Friday, two women who were indicted but never prosecuted after the drug busts filed a federal lawsuit against laws enforcement officials saying they violated the women's civil rights and directed racial bias against Tulia's black population.
Zuri Bossett and Tonya White said they were not in Tulia at the time Coleman claimed he bought drugs from them. Their lawsuit against Coleman, Swisher County, Sheriff Larry Stewart, prosecutor Terry McEachern and officials with a narcotics task force that worked with Coleman did not specify damages.
Coleman's attorney did not immediately return calls for comment. Stewart declined to comment. McEachern said he hadn't seen the lawsuit and couldn't comment. Officials at the task force were unavailable.
Swisher County officials earlier approved a $250,000 settlement for those imprisoned based on Coleman's testimony in exchange for the defendants promising not to sue the county.