This is in response to a Polk County Enterprise “news analysis” written by Polk County Enterprise Editor Valerie Reddell and published in today’s (June 18, 2020) edition of the paper regarding a member of my staff, Polk County Assistant Criminal District Attorney Tommy Coleman. In a front page article headlined “Battle lines drawn over prosecutor’s conduct. Part of an ongoing series about the need for criminal justice reform,” Ms. Reddell professes to “revisit one of the worst episodes of wrongful conviction in the history of Texas jurisprudence” and “examines” how “one of the prosecutors in the case made a soft landing in the Polk County Criminal District Attorney’s Office.” Ms. Reddell then briefly recounts portions of the history of the Michael Morton wrongful conviction from Williamson County and alleges that “Tommy Lamar Coleman” assisted in the “prosecution of Michael Morton during his tenure at the Williamson County District Attorney’s Office.” Ms. Reddell’s article is misleading and her timing suspect. It leaves out details regarding Mr. Coleman that I feel are essential to allow a reader to make their own objective conclusions regarding the inferences Ms. Reddell seeks to raise. In fact, it is not apparent what, if any, contemporary relevance the article has.
First, and most importantly, the article fails to note that the Williamson County prosecution of Michael Morton occurred in 1987 under the administration of then District Attorney Ken Anderson. Mr. Coleman was not even licensed to practice law until 2002 and not employed by the Williamson County District Attorney’s Office until 2006. While it is true that some of Morton’s efforts to overturn his sentence were pending during Mr. Coleman’s association with Williamson County (then under the administration of a new district attorney) I am unaware of any involvement Mr. Coleman had in those legal proceedings. Further, I am unaware of any allegation of professional misconduct that was ever lodged against Mr. Coleman with the State Bar of Texas from his association with the Williamson County District Attorney’s Office or otherwise. The State Bar of Texas website page for Mr. Coleman does not reflect any disciplinary history.
Mr. Coleman’s professional resume is exceptional. Prior to becoming an Assistant District Attorney for Williamson County, he served as a non-commissioned officer in the United States Army for six years where he received numerous professional commendations and an honorable discharge. He served as an Assistant General Counsel for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, an Assistant County Auditor for Williamson County and an Assistant County Attorney for Williamson County. He worked in private practice in Austin for approximately two years.
Immediately after leaving the Williamson County District Attorney’s Office, Mr. Coleman was hired as Staff Counsel for the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct—the entity that investigates judges for allegations of ethical and professional misconduct. Presumably, that agency charged with the enforcement of ethical rules for judges’ properly vetted Mr. Coleman for any history of professional misconduct. It was in January of 2013, after I filed an allegation of judicial misconduct against former 258th District Judge Elizabeth Coker over a courtroom texting incident that occurred during a criminal trial, that I first met Mr. Coleman. He was one of several attorneys with the Judicial Conduct Commission who were assigned to work on the Coker investigation which ultimately lead to her resignation from the bench. I recall speaking to him approximately four or five times during the course of that investigation. It is perhaps noteworthy that Mr. Coleman was no longer with the commission at the conclusion of its investigation of Ms. Coker in October of 2013. Rather, in August of 2013 he left for a position with the Republican Party of the State of Texas to serve as In House Counsel and Director of Minority Outreach.
Contrary to Ms. Reddell’s assertion, it was not a “short time later” following Mr. Coleman’s departure from the Judicial Conduct Commission that he became employed by this office. Nor was his employment here a “soft landing”—whatever that term means. Between August of 2013 and January of 2015, I had essentially no contact with Mr. Coleman other than being aware that he had taken a position with the Texas Republican Party. In January of 2015, Mr. Coleman learned of a vacancy in this office for an Assistant District Attorney and applied for that position. Based upon his extensive professional experience in both government and private practice, I felt that he was more than qualified for the position and he was hired. During his tenure in Polk County, Mr. Coleman has prosecuted both felony and misdemeanor cases, served as a county government liaison to our county commissioner’s court, served as the primary office counsel on matters pertaining to open records and open government and most recently been classified as a “special projects” prosecutor with the objective of focusing on public integrity crimes. He is actively involved in our community and has volunteered to serve as Chairman of the local board of directors for Habitat for Humanity. Most importantly, during his tenure with this office I was approached by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Texas regarding the possibility of Mr. Coleman becoming appointed to serve as a Special Assistant United States Attorney (SAUSA) for the U.S. Justice Department. I readily agreed that this appointment would be beneficial to this office and the people of Polk County, as well as for Mr. Coleman. Since his appointment as a SAUSA, Mr. Coleman has proven to be a very effective liaison between this office and the United States Attorney’s Office on criminal cases with a potential federal nexus. I would note that prior to his appointment, Mr. Coleman underwent an extensive FBI background investigation in order to receive this federal position and appropriate security clearances associated therewith.
It is no secret (and was no secret to me at the time of his hiring) that Mr. Coleman is a conservative Republican. Since moving to Polk County in 2015, he has been actively involved in Republican Party politics. As an African-American conservative, I have regrettably seen him criticized from both the left and the right. That is frankly, sad. In late 2015 he came to me and told me that he had been solicited by several local supporters to run for the position of County Republican Chairman. He had the right to do so and in the 2016 Republican primary he received almost 47% of the votes having lived here for only a year. He has served as president of the local county Republican club and has not been hesitant to speak out publicly and privately, as a conservative, on matters of public concern.
On Sunday, June 7th of this year, Mr. Coleman, on his own personal time and own social media sites spoke out very publicly in support of the First Amendment “free speech” rights of a local online news publisher who had generated some controversy regarding recent local political protests. The following Monday, June 8th, I received a phone call at my office from Polk County Enterprise Editor Valerie Reddell complaining of Mr. Coleman’s comments and interpreting them as a slight against her newspaper. Ms. Reddell stated to me that it was no secret that she did not care for her online media competitor. I explained to Ms. Reddell that Mr. Coleman’s comments were his own, made on his own personal time and that he had the legal right to make them. Nevertheless, she insisted that he was “one of my employees,” that she would be “speaking to her attorneys” and that she would “see me in court.”
It should be noted that at present, my office is comprised of six assistant prosecuting attorneys. All of them are attorneys licensed to practice law in the State of Texas and in good standing with the State Bar of Texas. They went to law school. They studied constitutional law and are quite familiar with their rights including their freedom to speak out on matters of public interest.
Although it was never my conscious objective, the Polk County District Attorney’s Office is one of the most diverse prosecutors’ offices in all of Texas. Actually, I am somewhat proud of that. Of my six assistant prosecutors, four are ethnic minorities, three are African-American, and four are female. They represent a diversity of perspectives and political views that I think are extremely important in the administration of justice and the important decisions they make. We have robust discussions and occasional debates within our own office. I certainly expect them to have their own opinions and to feel comfortable expressing them. In fact, I want them to in these difficult political times. I legally cannot, and will not, attempt to suppress their views as long as they are made within the parameters of the law and rules of ethics for prosecutors.
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