On to the Next One
Jeff Blackburn is freeing one wrongly convicted Texan after another
Published in 2016 Texas Super Lawyers magazine
on September 6, 2016
Updated on October 8, 2019
Texas is No. 1 in the nation—by far—but it’s not exactly something to brag about. Last year, the state led in exonerations, with 52 wrongful convictions overturned; New York was a distant second at 17. Even the 52 figure was just a fraction of the “thousands of innocent people” sitting in Texas prisons today, according to Amarillo criminal defense and civil rights attorney Jeff Blackburn.
Why is this so? Blackburn blames an underfunded and overmatched public defender system. “I have never seen a wrongful-conviction case that had a good lawyer representing the defendant in trial,” he says. “OK, maybe one or two.”
Blackburn was named the state Bar’s Criminal Defense Lawyer of the Year for 2002-2003 after he cleared 38 poor, black Tulia residents who had been convicted on drug-dealing charges after being arrested by a rogue police officer.
He offers the Colorado criminal-justice system as an example of one that works well. “Their public defenders are paid well, so they attract talent from all over the country. … Half of the judges are former public defenders. You know how many wrongful convictions they’ve had to overturn? One.”
After founding the Innocence Project’s Texas chapter in 2005, Blackburn got the first posthumous DNA exoneration in Texas for Timothy Cole, who was wrongly convicted of rape and died in prison. Blackburn spearheaded the Timothy Cole Act, which made Texas the highest-paying state when it comes to compensating the wrongly convicted—$80,000 for every year incarcerated plus a lifetime annuity—after they’ve been freed.
That was exactly the kind of case the Innocence Project’s New York headquarters wanted its name attached to. It’s also one reason Blackburn resigned from the organization last May. “I believe that staying connected with the New York people will compromise the work of criminal justice reform in this state,” his resignation letter stated.
Blackburn has switched, in sports parlance, to playing “small ball.” His three-attorney firm, Blackburn & Brown, just filed a class action suit against the city of Amarillo for locking up people who can’t pay traffic tickets. “Some people will look at this as a waste of time, but to me that’s the kind of grassroots work that lawyers need to be doing,” says the Amarillo native, who returned after college in Alabama. “Real injustice starts on the misdemeanor level, and it’s perpetuated daily. The vast majority don’t even get a lawyer. They plead guilty so they can get back to work.
“This is where it starts: that careless attitude about due process. Eventually, we develop a careless attitude about felonies.”
Blackburn grew up in Northwest Texas in the ’60s and ’70s, and his heroes were the leaders of the civil rights movement, which drew him to Birmingham, Alabama, after high school. His mentor was African-American civil rights leader E.D. Nixon, who organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 after his secretary, Rosa Parks, was arrested for sitting in the white section of a bus. “I thought I would write a great history book about the civil rights movement,” Blackburn says, explaining why he chose University of Alabama. “E.D. made me realize that, if I wanted to be part of the change, I had to become a lawyer.”
Nixon also encouraged him to go back to his hometown, where he had deep roots, because that’s where the fight was. His mentor was right. “The question I got asked a thousand times was, ‘How did you get the Tulia cases?’” says Blackburn, who practiced law for more than 15 years before that nationally prominent case. “It was because my office was 50 miles away! You don’t get a Tulia if you’re in Dallas or Houston.”
Blackburn says his objective “from the very beginning was to make these cases such that lots of other lawyers would pick up the struggle and carry this banner. In that respect, I’ve failed. Some lawyers have come forward, but nowhere near enough to help all the wrongly convicted. Most lawyers think the government will get ’em out. But only lawyers can do that.”
The acceptance of DNA evidence, starting in the U.S. in 1987 but becoming widespread in the late ’90s, brought a shift in the public’s understanding of criminal justice. “When I started practicing law in the ’80s, and started telling people that innocent people were locked up routinely, I was looked at like some kind of communist nut,” Blackburn says. “Now when you say that, people will say ‘of course.’”
Computers have also modernized the legal defense system, bringing it to a historic crossroads, Blackburn says. “It’s very similar to the turn of the 20th century—you know, the Sherlock Holmes period,” he says. “Within the course of two decades, everything changed. We had fingerprints, we had the ability to analyze poison, we had professional medical examiners who actually created a science around forensic pathology.
“Whether we see it or not, we’re in exactly the same kind of period. You can load 5,000 fingerprints into a powerful computer and compare them to each other,” he says. “It’s a turning of the wheel you don’t see but every 100 years or so.”
Earliest DNA exonerations nationwide: 1989—David Vasquez/Virginia; Gary Dotson/Illinois
DNA exonerations nationwide: 342
DNA exonerations in Texas: 52
Earliest DNA exoneration in Texas: 1994—Gilbert Alejandro/sexual assault conviction, served four years of 12-year sentence