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Arts Snitching on the snitches 

Nate Blakeslee takes a hard look at a justice system that relies on criminal informants

In Tulia, former Texas Observer editor Nate Blakeslee digs deeper into a story he broke in 2000, that of a tiny Panhandle town where a corrupt undercover officer and some too-easily-convinced juries incarcerated one of every five black adults on largely baseless drug charges. Next week, Blakeslee will read from his book at the Twig, alongside fellow Observer veteran Karen Olsson, whose novel Waterloo is also hot off the presses `see "Southern discomfort," August 25-31, 2005`.

How does the Tulia story compare to the one `in which 28 black citizens of Edna, Texas were convicted on drug charges using manufactured evidence` on the cover of last week's Austin Chronicle?

Like Tulia, Edna seems to be a story about, among other things, the decline in the standards of narcotics enforcement in Texas. In its details, the story in Edna actually reminds me more of the scandal in Hearne, the central-Texas town in which an undercover bust fell to pieces in 2001 because of fabricated evidence. As in Edna, the police in Hearne tried to make cases not with an undercover police officer, but with a confidential informant, more commonly called a snitch. Snitches are supposed to be used to gather information - though they can be notoriously unreliable even for that purpose. In Hearne and Edna, however, the police allowed their snitch to actually make the undercover bust on his or her own, with no surveillance by actual police officers.

The potential for fraud here is enormous. Snitches generally work for money or to get themselves out of trouble for previous busts. They are often drug abusers themselves, as was the case in both Edna and Hearne. In both cases, the snitch used a hidden tape recorder to supposedly corroborate his buys, but these recordings are notoriously unreliable as evidence. In Hearne, distinct voices could rarely be heard on the tapes, and the snitch admitted that he simply simulated the sounds of a drug transaction in some cases.

How did you get involved with the Tulia story?

I first heard about Tulia in the spring of 2000 through a letter sent to the Texas Observer in Austin, where I was working as a reporter. I had already done a couple of drug-war stories by that time, and both had involved the type of regional drug task force that had run the Tulia operation. The letter focused on the racial aspect of the Tulia bust - 39 of the 47 people indicted were black, in a small Panhandle town with very few black people. But what got me interested more than anything were the sentences involved. The first defendant got 90 years for delivery of a single eight-ball (about $200 worth) of cocaine. Another young man was convicted of several small deliveries and the jury directed that his sentences be "stacked," giving him 361 years in prison. Even first-time offenders were getting the max, when they would have been eligible for probation. You rarely see these kinds of sentences for minor drug crimes in big cities, so I wanted to go talk to these rural jurors and see what it was, in their minds, that made delivering small amounts of drugs morally equivalent to committing murder. Because that was the kind of sentences they were handing out. When I got out there, however, I began to realize that this was also a story of a corrupt narc and wrongful prosecutions. My original story strongly suggested that most of the cases were apparently fabricated, and events in Tulia in the years to come eventually confirmed this idea, beyond a reasonable doubt in most observers' minds.

Reading and signing:
Nate Blakeslee and Karen Olsson

5-7pm Wed, Nov 9

The Twig Book Shop
5005 Broadway

What are the prospects for reform or serious rethinking of the war on drugs?

Significant reforms have already taken place as a result of the scandal in Tulia. The narc in Tulia worked for a regional drug task force funded by a federal grant program known as the Byrne Grant, which was overseen in Texas by the governor's office. The Texas program was quite large, with 50 or so task forces employing perhaps 750 agents, mostly in rural and suburban areas. After the story broke, the governor announced a major reorganization of the way drug task forces are operated in Texas, placing them under the supervision of the state police, which immediately announced changes in policies and procedures for the task forces, bringing them more in line with state-police standards for hiring, evidence procurement, etcetera. Some Texas task forces folded rather than submit to state-police oversight. The Texas legislature also passed bills requiring corroboration for cases made by confidential informants and opening up police officers' state licensure files to the public.

Additionally, in the years after Tulia became a national scandal, the Byrne program has fallen out of favor somewhat in Washington. As a result, funding has been drastically cut, leading to a scaling back of the task-force program nationwide. The Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank, evaluated the Byrne program and found it had made no discernible impact on drug crime. The implication was that the program had become a form of pork, which I think is essentially correct.

By John DeFore

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