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Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town

A-TuliaIn July 1999, 46 residents of Tulia, Texas—39 of them black—were arrested in a predawn raid masterminded by Tom Coleman, a corrupt, white undercover agent. The alleged crime? Drug trafficking; Coleman claimed he had bought cocaine from them. Despite a lack of evidence, 38 of the west Texans were sentenced to prison. Blakeslee, who reported on the case for the Texas Observer in 2000, soon attracted international media attention. After a group of attorneys and activists heroically fought to reverse the convictions, Governor Rick Perry pardoned 35 of the defendants in summer 2003, and a civil rights settlement followed. Tulia weaves the stories of the accused into the larger one of racial injustice, poverty, and the American war against drugs.
Public Affairs. 450 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 158648219X

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"Tulia is a prime example of true crime reporting. The bonus is that it may be second only to Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights as a slice of hardscrabble Panhandle life." Jerome Weeks

Houston Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"[It’s] Blakeslee’s fleshing out of the ‘who’ and the ‘why’ that turns this crooked-cop tale from the fingering of one rogue officer into a broader indictment of the United States’s war on drugs. … Blakeslee gets to know Tulia’s stingees—where they live, who their sisters used to date, their early promise at wide receiver—and traces a convincing historical continuity of Tulia’s black community." Brad Tyer

San Antonio Exp-News 4 of 5 Stars
"There is no way to be subtle about this: Coleman is as despicable a human being that can exist. … As Blakeslee superbly reports, the truth is dramatic and tragic enough." Cary Clack

San Diego Union-Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"At its heart, this was a travesty arising from racial bigotry, drug-war hysteria, and the desperation and hopelessness of poverty in small-town America. Blakeslee weaves these elements throughout a terrific piece of reporting and writing that achieves the lofty goal of journalistic narrative: The writer shows, rather than tells the reader what happened, how it happened, and why." Mark Sauer

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Blakeslee’s excellent and eminently readable book is a wonderful story of justice triumphant, but his vivid portrait of law enforcement gone wrong suggests that there are more Tulias than there are lawyers dedicated enough to expose them." David J. Garrow

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"There are a couple of hundred books about wrongful convictions, many of them better written than Blakeslee’s. But none of those other books is more important than Tulia. Blakeslee’s explanations of how and why so many seemingly intelligent people believed Coleman despite his nearly total lack of documentation concerning the alleged cocaine transactions is vital to read." Steve Weinberg

Critical Summary

"No novelist could have made up such an account and been deemed credible," writes the San Francisco Chronicle. Yet every detail in Tulia is true. Expertly researched and written, Tulia offers a shocking portrait of racial profiling and bigotry in rural America. In writing this tale, Blakeslee never fails to put the defendants’ stories in the context of black-white race relations, drug-enforcement task forces, and corrupt police forces. Nor (to the chagrin of a few critics, who found the characters hard to follow) does he omit a single defendant or lawyer involved in the case. Coleman in particular comes off as an incompetent, despicable man unable to live up to his father’s reputation as a respected Texas Ranger. Though depressing, Tulia is ultimately a story of triumph. Read the book—or wait for the film.