TULIA: RACE, COCAINE, AND CORRUPTION IN A SMALL TEXAS TOWN by Nate Blakeslee (Public Affairs), 456 pages, $18 paper. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
Tulia is a sweaty little speck of a town lost in time somewhere in the Texas Panhandle.
We would never have heard of it had police not rounded up 47 suspects - almost all of them black - on cocaine charges eight years ago. Twenty per cent of the town's adult black population was nabbed.
Trials ensued, and the sentences were staggering. Defendants accused of possessing minute amounts of coke were given insanely long jail terms, including one for 361 years. The story of those arrests and the scandal that followed is chillingly told here by Nate Blakeslee.
At the centre of it all was a narc named Tom Coleman, a card-carrying member of the KKK who was described as a pathological liar and a crook by his previous law enforcement employers. Coleman's past caught up with him and the sherriff of Tulia was forced to arrest him in the middle of the sting operation, but that didn't stop the sheriff from continuing to use him. He was even named officer of the year.
When Coleman's dirty background started leaking out, the morally bankrupt district attorney handling the prosecutions covered up for the lawman to keep the convictions coming.
This story reads like a throwback to 1930s Alabama, where a black defendant had no hope of challenging the word of a white person. But this was Texas 1998, and the governor of the state at the time was George W. Bush.
Tulia is a great book about the war on drugs and its ugly racist undertow. It's also one of the best pieces of journalism to come out of the South in a long time.