updated 3/11/2004 1:58:51 PM ET 2004-03-11T18:58:51

More than 40 people who were snared in a now-discredited drug sting in the Panhandle town of Tulia will share $5 million as part of a settlement, an attorney for the plaintiffs said.

The agreement with the nearby city of Amarillo, which was announced Wednesday, ends the multi-agency task force that ran the sting operation. It was cheered by the NAACP and lawyers representing those who were arrested in what many said was a racially motivated operation.

“The settlement that was reached is truly historic,” one of the lawyers, Jeff Blackburn, told The Associated Press. “It represents the first example of a responsible city government putting an end to irresponsible task force system of narcotics enforcement.”

Marcus Norris, Amarillo’s city attorney, called the settlement the responsible thing to do, adding that the city recognized the “misjustice” done in Tulia by the task force.

“The law on who is responsible for the task force is very unsettled, and the city could not risk a $30-, $50- or $100-million dollar judgment,” Norris said.

All but one of the 46 people who were arrested — most of them black — will receive some part of the $5 million. The other defendant died before going to trial and is not included, Blackburn said.

A claims administrator will determine how the money will be apportioned.

More details were to be released Thursday in a news conference in Amarillo.

‘Injustice’ in Amarillo
The task force’s only undercover agent, Tom Coleman, who is white, said he bought drugs from the defendants, but he worked alone and used no audio or video surveillance. No drugs or money were found during the arrests.

The case cast an often-unflattering light on the farming town of about 5,000 between Lubbock and Amarillo on the High Plains. Amarillo saw an “injustice” and wanted to right it, Blackburn said.

Kizzy White, an original plaintiff, said Thursday that she was satisfied with the settlement and was especially glad to see the task force disbanded.

“They need to be gone and let the city and county do the job,” said White, who spent four years behind bars before being released in 2003. “The money is good, too, but that can’t bring back the time I missed with my kids.”

Mediation continues with others named in the lawsuit — 26 counties and three cities that were involved with the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force.

Swisher County officials earlier approved a $250,000 settlement for those who were imprisoned based on Coleman’s testimony in exchange for the defendants’ promising not to sue the county. Coleman no longer is an officer.

‘Rogue officer’
Vanita Gupta, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund who also represents the plaintiffs, commended Amarillo for doing the right thing.

“It’s not simply that Tom Coleman was a rogue officer,” she said. “The city of Amarillo has recognized that federally funded task forces are ineffective tools of law enforcement and [that] they operate as rogue task forces because they are unaccountable to any oversight mechanism.”

Coleman, who testified that he bought cocaine from the defendants, is scheduled to stand trial May 24 on perjury charges related to testimony he gave during evidentiary hearings.

Former state Judge Ron Chapman, who was brought out of retirement to preside over a review of the cases, said in a report that Coleman was “the most devious, nonresponsive witness this court has witnessed in 25 years on the bench in Texas.”

A leader of the task force had testified that Coleman’s former employers said he needed constant supervision, was a discipline problem and tended to run to his mother for help.

After they were arrested, some of the first defendants who went to trial received long sentences, one of them as long as 90 years. That prompted other defendants to accept plea agreements for lesser terms out of fear of long sentences.

Gov. Rick Perry pardoned 35 of those who were convicted.


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