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Indian American lawyer key figure in upcoming Hollywood film

The movie is about Vanita Gupta’s valiant legal battle against the wrongful conviction of 39 mostly black men in 1999 for possessing and peddling cocaine.

world Updated: Sep 07, 2017 07:53 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times, Washington
Vanita Gupta (right), an Indian American lawyer  who was  former president Barack Obama’s chief civil rights enforcer, with senator Chuck Schumer.
Vanita Gupta (right), an Indian American lawyer who was former president Barack Obama’s chief civil rights enforcer, with senator Chuck Schumer.(Twitter)

Vanita Gupta, an Indian American lawyer who was president Barack Obama’s chief civil rights enforcer, will be the central figure in an upcoming Hollywood movie about the wrongful conviction of a group of mostly black men in 1999 and the valiant legal battle she led for their freedom.

Seth Gordon, director of the film version of Baywatch, will direct the movie that draws its name from the small town where the case took place, Tulia, in west Texas. It’s based on the book, Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town.

The film is based on the real-life story of the conviction in 1999 of 39 mostly African Americans for possessing and peddling cocaine, based on the highly tendentious and suspect testimony of a white undercover police officer who presented only his word in support of his allegations.

“I’m excited to bring this important and poignant story to a wider audience, to call attention to what happened in Tulia, and to showcase the incredible and heroic work Vanita Gupta did for its citizens,” Gordon said while announcing the film, according to Hollywood Reporter.

“Vanita Gupta is the daughter of an immigrant and a very inspiring and strong woman,” said Mubina Rattonsey, whose Los Angeles-based company is producing the film and who has been associated with projects in Bollywood.

“Tulia is her story, and for me, it represents what America stands for — the coming together of minds and hearts for justice. Vanita turned the case around; she won it…I was simply fascinated by her will to do the impossible.”

There was no word on who will play Gupta, who had headed the civil rights division of the justice department in the Obama administration, and led investigations into the racially-charged killings of African Americans by police officers.

She now heads the DC-based Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and has emerged as a leading critic of President Donald Trump and his administration on civil rights issues such as the handling of the Charlottesville race clashes.

In the case in Tulia, police officer Tom Coleman had no wire-taps, no seizures or independent corroboration of his so-called drug buys. But a mostly white jury convicted the 39 accused, who were sentenced from 20 years to, in one case, more than 300 years.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a group focussed on ensuring civil rights for all, took up their case and handed it to its Legal Defense and Education Fund (simply called LDF), which in turn tasked it to Gupta, who had joined the organisation straight out of law school.

“Vanita convened and led the legal team representing the defendants in post-conviction proceedings,” LDF said in a summary of the case on its website, adding she and her team proved that “Coleman’s misconduct, which was not challenged during the trials, was egregious and that the convictions were completely unfounded”.

A Texas judge concluded in 2003 that Coleman was not credible and state prosecutors vacated each of the convictions, and the defendants were pardoned by then governor Rick Perry, now a member of Trump’s cabinet. Coleman was charged and convicted of perjury.

But Gupta and her team didn’t give up. They initiated civil rights actions on behalf of the wrongly convicted, who had been in jail for more than three years, and secured $6 million dollars in settlement.