Gov. Perry pardons 35 Tulia defendants
AUSTIN, Texas (CNN) -- Gov. Rick Perry Friday pardoned 35 people convicted in drug cases in the West Texas town of Tulia after the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously recommended the action, ending what critics said was a four-year injustice.
"Questions surrounding testimony from the key witness in these cases, coupled with recommendations from the Board of Pardons and Paroles, weighed heavily on my final decision," Perry said in a written statement.
"Texans demand a justice system that is tough but fair. I believe my decision to grant pardons in these cases is both appropriate and just."
The cases trace back to July 23, 1999, when 46 people -- 39 of them African-American -- were arrested on drug charges in Tulia, a town of about 5,000 residents between Lubbock and Amarillo.
Thirty-eight of the 46 were convicted on drug charges based on the testimony of Tom Coleman, an undercover agent who no longer works in law enforcement. At the trials, Coleman, who is white, presented little evidence to back up his statements: few notes, no surveillance video and no wiretaps.
This year, a trial court review concluded that Coleman was not credible and had withheld evidence from the defense.
In May -- after Coleman's indictment on perjury charges in late April -- Perry ordered the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to review the cases.
Upon Coleman's indictment, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals was asked to consider ordering new trials.
The court appointed retired Judge Ron Chapman to review what happened in Tulia. In his report, Chapman called Coleman "the most devious non-responsive law enforcement officer this court has seen" and "entirely unbelievable" as a witness.
"We're overjoyed, jubilant and generally shell-shocked," said defense attorney Jeff Blackburn. "It's a complete vindication of the struggle which we launched three-and-a-half years ago and a vindication of all the people who were imprisoned and convicted on the word of a crook and a liar."
Blackburn said he filed a lawsuit Friday afternoon in federal district court in Amarillo against the regional narcotics trafficking task force that "directed and organized Coleman," hiring him despite a background check that "revealed substantial negative information" about him.
Coleman's attorney has told CNN his client stands behind the work he did on the cases and believes releasing the inmates simply means more drug dealers will return to Tulia's streets.
"I believe we did everything right in Tulia -- everything," Coleman said in an interview last year.
The 35 Tulia residents Perry pardoned are: Dennis Mitchell Allen, James Ray Barrow, Leroy Barrow Jr., Troy Bernard, Fred Wesley Brookins Jr., Marilyn Joyce Cooper, Armenu Jerrod Ervin, Michael Dewaine Fowler, Jason Fry, Vicki Rebecca Fry, Willie B. Hall Jr., Cleveland Joe Henderson Jr., Mandrell Leonardo Henry, Christopher Eugene Jackson, Denise Demeterise Kelly, Eliga Kelly Sr., Calvin Kent Klein, William Cash Love, Joseph Corey Marshall, Laura Ann Mata, Vincent Dwight McCrary, Joe Welton Moore, Daniel Guadalupe Olivarez, Kenneth Ray Powell, Benny Lee Robinson, Finaye Burnett Shelton, Donald Wayne Smith, Yolanda Yvonne Smith, Ramona Lynn Strickland, Timothy Wayne Towery, Kareem Abdul Jabbar White, Kizzie Rashawn White, Alberta Stell Williams, Jason Jerome Williams and Michelle Williams.
Perry also pardoned 25 other people, following recommendations from the parole board. Eighteen of those offenders were in their teens or early 20s when they were convicted of minor offenses more than 15 years ago. None of the individuals has been charged with subsequent crimes.