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It was an odd bust. The 39 residents of Tulia, Texas, charged as drug dealers weren’t found with drugs during the 1999 mass arrests. They couldn’t afford the powdered cocaine they were accused of dealing. And the cases, against nearly 10 percent of the black population in town, rested almost entirely upon the uncorroborated word of a single narc who allegedly used the N-word after the arrests. Yet the local prosecutor pushed forward. His aggressive advocacy met a combination of a friendly judge, underfunded defense lawyers, and tough jurors, and he won convictions against almost all of the defendants. Many faced decades in prison; one was sentenced to 99 years. Then the cases unraveled. Nate Blakeslee’s new book Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town describes the legal proceedings along a long road to justice. Blakeslee, a former editor at The Texas Observer, reported on some of the events as they occurred. Now his book tells the full story in a readable and honest manner that lets the facts carry the story without needless editorializing. The book, released last October, is reportedly being adapted into a feature film, and a CBS television movie is also in the works. For the legal profession, however, the most piercing part of the Tulia tale may not be the Hollywood villain of a dirty cop, but rather how nobility can arise in even the most commercial of places: large East Coast law firms. The real heroes are lawyers from Hogan & Hartson and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, who volunteered considerable amounts of time and traveled across the country to represent poor Texans convicted of drug crimes. Before the firms got involved, many of the Tulia defendants had to rely on court-appointed attorneys, who usually earned less than $500 a case. Some attorneys conducted a diligent defense despite the lack of compensation, essentially performing pro bono work for their clients. Others did not. In one case, the court-appointed attorney learned in a pretrial hearing that Tom Coleman, the undercover drug agent responsible for the mass arrests, had taken notes on his leg and omitted potential witnesses from the report, and was even arrested for theft during his undercover operation in Tulia. Yet at trial, the cross-examination of Coleman was perfunctory, lasting perhaps 10 minutes. The defense offered no witnesses. The trial was over in about three hours, and the defendant was convicted and sentenced to 99 years in prison. Many of the other defendants also received substantial sentences. The Tulia defendants did not quietly disappear in prison, however. Press coverage, including an article by Blakeslee in The Texas Observer, began to attract national attention. Ultimately, the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund took up the cause of the Tulia inmates. Vanita Gupta, a 2001 graduate of New York University School of Law who was working at the Legal Defense Fund, turned the Tulia cases into her mission, recruiting attorneys to file postconviction motions on behalf of the convicts. Gupta made a pitch for pro bono assistance to the American Bar Association, only to be asked, “Have you tried the law school clinics?” Gupta was exasperated, Blakeslee writes: “She didn’t need students; she was barely out of law school herself. She needed lawyers.” Eventually, the lawyers found Gupta. One afternoon early in 2002, she got a message from Des Hogan of Hogan & Hartson. Gupta wondered if she was getting a phone call from the founding partner, who she assumed would be one of the most powerful lawyers in Washington. In fact, Frank Hogan died in 1944, and Des Hogan is no relation. But this Hogan was leading the firm’s community service division. He had been following the Tulia story in the press and was a longtime admirer of the Legal Defense Fund, having studied its history as one of the few white students at Howard University’s law school. Hogan & Hartson dedicated five attorneys to represent four defendants in filing state petitions for habeas review. Ultimately, three partners (including antitrust litigator Mitchell Zamoff) and four associates would work on the cases as part of the firm’s pro bono program. Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering (as Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr was known then) agreed to contribute attorneys as well. The Wilmer team was led by Ted Killory, a graduate of Harvard Law School with a broad litigation practice out of the firm’s McLean, Va., office. Some residents in Tulia began to refer to the firms as “the dream team.” The lawyers filed petitions for habeas review with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, whose judges are chosen in partisan elections that create strong incentives to appear tough on crime. One Texas defense lawyer warned, “They’re not a court. They’re some kind of über-police force.” To this defense lawyer, filing such petitions was a waste of time. Undaunted, the D.C. firms filed the motions anyway, if only to lay the grounds for subsequent federal review. Yet whether from the quality of the briefs or the unfavorable attention that Tulia was attracting, the Texas court sent four of the convictions back for review. It was an unexpected victory. At the state habeas review, the defense team received a new judge, Ron Chapman. (The first judge, Ed Self, who presided over the trials, recused himself after he wrote a letter to a newspaper defending the convictions that he was supposed to review.) Now the D.C. lawyers would have a new opportunity to redress the problems of the initial convictions. Their preparation was massive. At the habeas hearings, the most challenging examinations were given to Zamoff. Zamoff pursued Coleman with the skills of a former prosecutor and the discipline of a marathon runner. Methodically, he damaged Coleman’s credibility on such things as his police procedures, his employment history, and his unpaid debts. Blakeslee reports that the mood among the courtroom spectators, chiefly black residents of Tulia, was “giddy” as they watched “a virtuoso at work.” After this, the prosecution, along with attorneys defending the county from civil suits by the inmates, decided to settle. The county would pay $250,000 to split among all the defendants of Coleman’s operation. The defendants were released from prison, and in August 2003 Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed pardons for 35 of them. Coleman’s victims later brought suits against various government entities, which settled for about $6 million. The Texas Observer has the reputation of being a left-wing newspaper, and readers who know this might have feared a polemic by a former editor such as Blakeslee. That’s not the case. Despite the obvious temptations to juice up the tale to score political points, Blakeslee appears to report the story honestly. He is clear that about six of the defendants probably did sell crack to Coleman (though not the powdered cocaine that Coleman had claimed). He ends the main part of the book not simply on the triumphal note of the innocents freed, but on the musings of one of the actual criminals who expressed his fondness for womanizing and seemed ready to abandon his child to head to Dallas. Because of such reporting, the book achieves far more credibility than would a black-and-white assault on small-town Texas. At times, Blakeslee even seems to understate some unsavory elements of the story. Coleman’s alleged use of the N-word as he visited the defendants in jail right after the bust is mentioned but never explored in the book, and if Coleman’s alleged Ku Klux Klan card in his wallet was mentioned in the habeas hearings, the reader never knows. Likewise, the fact that many of the black defendants dated white women (something that potentially might have influenced jurors in the small town) is mentioned deep into the book, but not emphasized. One suspects that Hollywood’s treatment of these issues may be far more sensational. Although the movie may exploit the racial elements to maximum effect, perhaps the most striking, if less dramatic, lesson from the book is how much the day-to-day work of lawyers matters. Here, a conviction-hungry prosecutor and an incurious judge put innocent people in jail. A few seemingly half-hearted defense lawyers at trial facilitated these injustices. And then skilled advocates set it right. For some residents of Tulia, it might have seemed like magic — their own angels swooping in to bring the justice that local authorities denied. But, of course, it wasn’t magic, merely the sophisticated legal representation available to anyone rich enough to buy it. Perhaps the real magic is that Hogan & Hartson alone gave more than 5,000 hours’ worth of pro bono services to liberate poor inmates in Texas. That may not be how Hollywood typically portrays large law firms, but it’s a story worth showing.
Robert L. Rogers is associate opinion editor of Legal Times . This review first appeared in The American Lawyer .

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