TULIA, Texas -- After as much as four years behind bars, 12 people sent to prison in a drug bust that brought cries of racism in this Texas Panhandle town were freed Monday by a judge who said they were railroaded by a white undercover agent.
"I got something to smile about today," Freddie Brookins said after the release of his son, Freddie Jr. "It's been a lot of hard work that's gone into this."
The 11 black defendants and one white defendant were released on bail while they await a ruling by the state's highest criminal appellate court, which ordered evidentiary hearings last year. But a special prosecutor has said he will dismiss all charges if the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals grants them new trials.
The racially charged case tore apart this town of 5,000 people and led to investigations by the U.S. Justice Department and the Texas Attorney General's office.
A bill passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Perry two weeks ago cleared the way for the defendants' release while their cases are being reviewed by the appeals court.
"There are a great number of people who have a great deal of time, effort and faith in each of you invested," state Judge Ron Chapman, who was brought out of retirement to preside over a review of the case, said in ordering the 12 released.
'Good people here'
"We have good people here in Tulia," 26-year-old Freddie Brookins Jr. said as he walked free after serving four years of a 20-year sentence. "There's no doubt about it, we have great people here in Tulia."
A 13th defendant, Daniel Olivarez, 22, will remain in custody because he faces a drug charge in another county. A 14th defendant included in the bill signed by the governor, Cash Love, was ineligible for bail because his conviction in the case is tied up in a separate appeal.
Love's wife, Kizzie White, 26, was among those freed. "I just wanted to get a hold of my kids," she said of 6-year-old Cashawn and 9-year-old Roneisha.
The undercover agent, Tom Coleman, who worked for a regional drug task force, has been indicted on perjury charges.
All 12 were released from the Swisher County Jail on personal recognizance bonds, meaning they did not have to post any money. The judge has recommended the appeals court overturn all convictions in the case.
Forty-six people, 39 of them black, were arrested and accused of possessing cocaine following an 18-month undercover operation. Coleman claimed he bought drugs from the defendants, but he worked alone and used no audio or video surveillance. And no drugs or money were found during the arrests.
Thirty-eight defendants were convicted on Coleman's uncorroborated word or accepted plea bargains for fear they would get long prison sentences.
In seven other cases, the charges were dismissed. And one defendant died before his trial.
The rest of the 38 not covered by Monday's release had already been paroled or released on probation.
In a filing to the appeals court which Chapman signed, Coleman was called "the most devious, nonresponsive witness this court has witnessed in 25 years on the bench in Texas." He is no longer in law enforcement.
Coleman's "blatant perjury" during the Tulia prosecutions "so undermines the court's confidence in the validity of the convictions entered in those cases that it would be a travesty of justice to permit the applicants' convictions to stand," Chapman told the appeals court.