Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Daniel Olivarez

Summary of Tulia Misconduct
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Swisher_County.jpg
Daniel Olivarez was one of 35 defendants wrongfully convicted based on misconduct by an undercover sheriff’s deputy in Swisher County, Texas.

On July 23, 1999, law-enforcement officers who were part of a regional anti-drug task force conducted a pre-dawn raid into individual homes across Tulia, a small town in the Texas Panhandle. They arrested 46 people, charging most with delivery of cocaine, based on alleged sales to the undercover officer, Sheriff's Deputy Tom Coleman. Olivarez, then 18 years old, was charged with delivery of a controlled substance on three occasions, the latest said to have occurred on July 15, 1998.

The officers arrived with arrest warrants, but seized no cocaine, weapons or cash during any of the arrests. Forty-one of those arrested were Black, and they constituted approximately 10 percent of Tulia’s Black population. Coleman was named Outstanding Lawman of the Year in 2000 by the Texas Department of Public Safety for his undercover work on the Tulia case.

Olivarez pled guilty to the charge on May 22, 2000. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Although most of the Tulia defendants pled guilty, a handful went to trial. Several times during Coleman’s testimony at these trials, he made offhand references to his disdain for a sheriff in Cochran County, where he had once worked. Paul Holloway, an attorney for several of the defendants, began researching Coleman’s work history and found out that Coleman had left behind approximately $7,000 in debts to Cochran merchants when he quit his deputy’s job in 1996. In addition, he had been charged with theft on May 6, 1998 for using a county credit card during his time in Cochran County to buy gasoline for his own vehicle. Prosecutors didn’t disclose this information to attorneys representing the Tulia defendants.

On June 23, 2000, the Texas Observer magazine published a lengthy investigation about the situation in Tulia, including details about Coleman’s arrest and his troubled employment history. The story also questioned the basic logic of the arrests – that there were dozens of drug dealers in a hardscrabble town. Moreover, the story noted that there was little evidence – beyond Coleman’s word and his scant files – connecting the defendants to cocaine, particularly powder cocaine.

Vanita Gupta, an attorney with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense Fund, became involved in the cases that month, after seeing a short documentary on Tulia. Working with a phalanx of private, pro bono attorneys, Gupta organized a massive legal challenge to the convictions of the Tulia defendants, filing habeas petitions with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Eventually, four of the convictions were remanded back to Swisher County for hearings.

The appellate court’s order, filed on September 25, 2002, directed the trial court to make findings about whether Coleman’s testimony was corroborated and the nature of that corroboration; what alleged impeachment evidence was known to the state at the time of trial; and whether any of this evidence was disclosed. The defendants claimed that prosecutors had suppressed exculpatory evidence.

Judge Edward Self, the trial judge for the majority of the Tulia cases, was to preside over the hearings. Gupta and her team wanted another judge and filed a successful motion for his recusal.

The heart of the hearing concerned what Sheriff Larry Stewart, the task force, and prosecutors, led by Swisher County District Attorney Terry McEachern, knew about Coleman’s arrest, when they knew it, and what they did with that knowledge.

Coleman was a witness, but before he finished testifying, the two sides began working on a joint Stipulation of Facts and Findings to present to Judge Ron Chapman.

The stipulations were given to Chapman, and on April 2, 2003, he recommended that the 38 cases – 35 convictions and three probation revocations – be thrown out. He said from the bench, “It is stipulated by all parties and approved by the court that Tom Coleman is simply not a credible witness under oath.” His order said that Coleman had committed “blatant perjury” and branded him as “the most devious, non-responsive law enforcement witness this court has witnessed in twenty-five years on the bench in Texas.”

Normally, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals would sign off on Chapman’s ruling that granted the habeas motions, but that was made unnecessary by Gov. Rick Perry’s pardons of all 35 defendants on August 22, 2003.

Olivarez was released from prison that day.

The Tulia defendants, including those who were arrested but not convicted, later filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas against the task force and the cities and counties who governed the body. In 2003, they reached a settlement of $5 million with the city of Amarillo and a separate settlement of $1 million with other communities. The money was split among 46 persons who were charged or convicted as a result of the undercover operation. The task force was also disbanded.

Separately, 19 of these defendants received compensation awards from the state of Texas totaling $3.1 million. The lump sum awards ranged from $14,583 to $106,250, and some defendants also received monthly annuity payments. Olivarez did not receive state compensation.

Coleman was charged with two counts of perjury. He was convicted on January 14, 2005 on a single count, for lying at the habeas hearing about when he became aware that a warrant was issued for his arrest. He was given 10 years of probation, and his law-enforcement career came to an end.

McEachern lost his campaign for reelection in 2004 and was investigated by the State Bar of Texas. The Bar concluded in July 2005 that McEachern had engaged in misconduct during his prosecution of the Tulia cases. The agency suspended his license for two years but probated the sentence, allowing McEachern to keep practicing law.

– Ken Otterbourg

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date: 6/7/2022
Last Updated: 6/7/2022
State:Texas
County:Swisher
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1998
Convicted:2000
Exonerated:2003
Sentence:12 years
Race/Ethnicity:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No