Thursday, November 10, 2011

Feeling Good About Texas Innocence

The Innocence Project of Texas is dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions and securing freedom for men and women wrongfully imprisoned for crimes that they did not commit. Our organization, which is comprised of devoted volunteers, students and experienced legal advocates, constantly strives to provide hope and reconciliation for those lost in a broken criminal justice system. We also seek to educate students, citizens and public officials on why wrongful convictions occur and how they can be prevented. By working together with the common goal of aiding those who have lost their freedom to wrongful convictions, we ultimately assist in seeing that true justice is served.


Last Thursday I had the chance to attend the Innocence Project Of Texas (IPOT) annual conference in (luckily) downtown Dallas. I debated going, not sure what I was going to run into. I mean, a roomful of lawyers and young Turks and highbrow legal talk could be a tad intimidating and I didn't want to feel like I was crashing the party. After all, I really had nothing to offer as far as legal strategy or knowing the finer points of the latest court rulings.

So that put me in a bit of a spot, forcing me to put what intelligence I might have on the line if I were to contribute anything and I've spent a lifetime playing things close to the vest. To say I have problems opening up is an understatement of epic proportions. It's like the time I tried to set up a session with a dominatrix and I told her my safe word was "blancmange", but she had such trouble getting her head wrapped around the word we ended up arguing and the session never took place. See, I have a certain genius for self-sabotage.

I can't say I didn't fully escape my syndrome that evening but I'm still very glad I went.

Entering the lobby of the hotel hosting the event what do I see but my old partner in crime Jeff Blackburn animatedly discussing legal crap with a bunch of dark suited kids looking like they were ready to tear up the world with all their eager smartness. My initial reaction: "Seems I'm going to be crashing this party after all!" But another voice told me just to go with the flow and wait until Jeff was alone to introduce myself after 25 years.

Jeff Blackburn, Chief Counsel

Jeff Blackburn handles criminal defense and civil rights cases throughout Texas. He also represents the wrongfully convicted. In 2009, he represented the family of Tim Cole, a young man falsely accused of rape who died in prison, and got the first posthumous exoneration in Texas. He also represented 38 people falsely convicted in the infamous Tulia drug bust, eventually obtaining full pardons and civil damages. He is the founder of and chief counsel to the Innocence Project of Texas. He was named criminal defense lawyer of the year by the State Bar of Texas for 2002/2003. He has received the Frank Spurlock award, the Henry B. Gonzales award, and the Maury Maverick award for his civil rights work. He is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.

After about 10 minutes my chance came.

"Jeff Blackburn, I bet you don't remember me." I extended my hand with a nervous smile.

We shook hands with him looking directly at me. "No, I'm afraid I don't."

"Amarillo, 1986. You remember Glen Parkey running for mayor, campaign vandalism - "

"Oh, it's you!" Jeff's face lit up and I have to admit that felt mighty good. He had read my posting about him and loved it. He talked a little bit about the article, ending with, "And you know the best part about it?" That's when we both spoke in unison: "That it was true!" He wanted to step outside for a quick smoke so he pointed me in the direction where the meeting was to take place and I awkwardly made my way downstairs.

There were several round tables covered in white tablecloths set up around a podium. I was alone in the room. I was like, "Fuck, where can I sit and not stick out?" In situations like these my natural tendency is to find a spot where I can observe and quantify, not caring to interact. But I did not want to engage in such bad behavior on this occasion. This is a cause near and dear to my heart.

I'm active in IPOT and two other prison related organizations. I'm a legal moron and don't intend to be anything other than that but this is a passion of mine and I'm deeply interested in what is and can be done. Also, people with far more positive attitudes than mine are attacking the problems of social justice in our penal systems so I mostly keep my mouth shut, listen, and learn.

An elderly woman with her husband and another female friend sat down at my table. I'd brought a weekly paper to read to kill time but she accosted me anyway, perhaps sensing my feeling of being out of place.

"Are you a lawyer?"

No, but I have watched Perry Mason on TV! That's what I felt like saying anyway upon being immediately busted. "No, 'fraid not," I eeked out with failed smile.

"Oh, neither am I." I could have kissed her! "But my husband is." Argh.

But really, I was grateful to her for breaking the ice and we began to talk about our common interest in IPOT and related endeavors and I started feeling good about my presence there. But inside I still had a tug of war in trying to open up. Our conversation was interrupted by Jeff taking the microphone to start things off.

The main thing Jeff wanted to stress was the legal strategy IPOT wanted to take, that yes, they still wanted to take up individual cases but with the reality that even individual cases can take up huge amounts of resources, a smarter approach would be to set legal precedents that lay the groundwork for releasing dozens or hundreds or possibly even thousands of people wrongly convicted over the years.

I agreed wholeheartedly (for what it's worth) and was pretty excited about that idea. Not only does this serve a greater number of people but it also stops the bleeding, where authorities literally use dogs to sniff out one's guilt or innocence and base incarceration upon that "evidence" (it's scary here, folks). Bringing law enforcement out of the dark ages would be a huge step here in Tejas.

Following speakers talked about various other aspects of IPOT, of the number of student organizations involved, etc., and I was duly impressed all around. I really enjoyed hearing Scott Henson who runs the widely read Grits For Breakfast blog which tracks all things Texas justice (or what passes for it). We'd exchanged emails a few times and he even did a posting on my posting about Jeff!

One very moving moment for me was listening to Cory Sessions, the brother of Tim Cole who was falsely convicted using rigged evidence from the police and died in prison before he could be cleared. This isn't philosophy we're talking about here, folks, but real lives and real consequences. Shooing away skeptics who believed nothing could be done to change Texas' railroading of justice (cough), Cory told the story of his personal efforts to lobby for reform. Thus, the Tim Cole Act was born:

The Texas Senate passed legislation to exonerate Tim Cole. The Texas House of Representatives bill passed through committee and then the full house. After that, it went to Governor Rick Perry to be signed into law. Another bill, named after Cole, was passed by the legislature and sent to the governor on May 11, 2009. It made those who are falsely convicted of a crime eligible for $80,000 for each year of incarceration and provide them with free college tuition.

The bill also established the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions. A panel set up to study the causes of wrongful convictions and to devise ways of preventing them is to report to the Texas governor no later than 2011. While Rick Perry stated he wanted to issue a pardon, he felt that he was not legally able to do so. However, on January 7, 2010, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued an opinion which cleared the way for the governor to pardon Cole.

On March 2, 2010, Governor Rick Perry granted Timothy Cole the state's first posthumous pardon.

In a bit of rare and delicious irony, it may be because of the fact the track record in Texas is so over the top bad the embarrassment enables reforms to be enacted that might not seem so necessary in more moderate states. What this allows us to do is set the foundation that can then be used to pave the way for clearing other bad laws off the books around the country.

That's right, precedents for justice coming from Texas! That's the power of people who care, fight the good fight and keep shining the (mostly unwanted) light of truth into dark holes. I was really damn proud to be in that room.

After the conference ended, I was too shy to acknowledge the lady at the table who had befriended me and I'm still kicking myself for it. I lost that tug of war. Instead, I immediately ran off to talk to Scott (aka Grits). He told me an interesting tale about the Texas ACLU and it's fall from grace from when he had been part of it.

The organization was doing yeoman’s work in enacting reform legislation that shocked me in its efficiency. Turns out Grits was a huge part of that, telling me about his approach of reaching out to the ruling conservatives and showing them how these changes were in their best interests even though oftentimes law enforcement was wanting to cling to their old and thuggy ways. Finding that commonality is a tough thing to do in someone you otherwise oppose but it has the advantage of being based upon truth and reality.

When he told me this I thought it was the obvious tack to take.

However, regardless of actual results, the more dogmatic and fanatical elements of the Texas ACLU got Grits canned because he was working with the enemy instead of pointing fingers at the enemy. Freaking morons. Like a Bolshevik purge, all other effective leaders were rushed out and now everyone asks what happened to the clout of the ACLU in Texas. Let this be a lesson that left or right, one need always keep an open mind.

I then spoke a few more words with Jeff, laughing a little bit more over the Amarillo exploits and my telling him how I'd tracked him over the years in a few of the more famous cases. But in the back of my mind, something was bugging me something fierce, even distracting me during our conversation. But I couldn't get to the bottom of it as we shook hands once more before departing.

I think anyone who reads my blog would know I've pretty well established my bone fides as a misanthrope. So let me you it's with no small measure I say I didn't see one jerk the whole time I was in the room (of about 30 people). These weren't political fanatics (Hi Texas ACLU!), but rather people of passion and conviction and I got good vibes from everyone I came across. Fucking amazing. When I walked out onto the street afterwards I was walking on air, on a great high and feeling inspired to do more, wanting to tell the world what I just experienced.

Yes, there are times I too say let's just blow up this damn state of ours and start over. But out of the tears of sorrow sometimes come the flowers of life that make tomorrow a better day. Praise be to the gardeners.

(Oh, and the thing bugging me with Blackburn during our final conversation: I forgot to ask about his Japanese sword collection I'd heard about! DAMN!!!!!!!!! Oh well, maybe next year. When it comes to discussing my beloved Japans, I can't get enough!)

1 comment:

Mildred Ratched said...

I stumbled onto your blog while I was making my rounds. Many thoughts ran through my head as a read about the Texas, but the one that prevailed throughout is if Florida has a similar organization to the one you described. Good luck in your endeavor...I'm off to investigate Florida's criminal justice system.