Innocence Project of Texas: Mission Aborted

Paul Kix wrote at length in the New Yorker about the work of the Innocence Project of Texas, and how Jeff Blackburn, then the legal director of the organization, found a way to obtain posthumous vindication for the wrongfully convicted Tim Cole.

Texas had never offered a posthumous pardon; there was not even a clear protocol for how one might be granted to Tim Cole. But Jeff Blackburn found a legal loophole. The state code of criminal procedure allowed any Texan with a legal grievance, even a posthumous one, to request a special Court of Inquiry, which could then clear the person’s name—not a pardon, technically, but the next best thing. Blackburn filed a motion in Lubbock, but it was rejected. He then petitioned in Austin, a more liberal jurisdiction, and a judge there agreed to hear the case.

The rest of the article, both before and after this paragraph, is the usual tearjerker of injustice that’s become a staple of popular writing.  If emotional stories are your thing, you will like the article. If you want anything deeper, it’s unfulfilling. But then, that’s what most people like these days. All feelz, no thought. No one will get a headache from having to think too hard.

For an organization like IPOT, a story like this is gold. Platinum. It’s huge to have one’s successes appear in a major media outlet, providing a level of exposure that can’t be bought, no matter what the price.  And it appears that it will be wasted, just totally, completely, utterly wasted, because the organization is incapable of capitalizing off it.

Jeff, one of the founders of IPOT, left. Or more accurately, was tossed out on his ass when others decided that his expectations of what IPOT should be didn’t meet theirs.  Mike Ware, whose vision for IPOT fundamentally conflicted with Jeff’s, took over control.  This isn’t to suggest that Ware was a bad guy, but rather someone whose view differed.

Rather than reconcile their respective visions for IPOT, however, a war of wills broke out. Ware won, though it was a battle against an unarmed adversary.  Jeff Blackburn wasn’t out for hegemony. If they didn’t want to spend their time, money and effort on the cause of IPOT, so be it. He was ready to lose and walk. He wasn’t interested in battling for control, just battling for the lives of the wrongfully convicted.

The executive director under Jeff, Nick Vibas, who had the joint running like a clock, was no longer wanted.  He was a traitor, having posted Jeff’s resignation letter which reflected poorly on the organization by revealing the internecine fighting, his days were numbered.

Mike Ware replaced Nick Vibas with perhaps the most curious choice imaginable, Scott Henson of Grits For Breakfast fame. Henson had been a volunteer at IPOT, but was asked to leave. He can be a bit difficult, lapsing into infantile antagonism when he doesn’t get his way.

But what made this choice peculiar was that Henson wasn’t a lawyer. He doesn’t even like lawyers, seeing them as worthless to the cause. Henson was an activist, a true believer, and saw this opportunity as a chance to remake the IPOT in his image.

MH: What are some of the specific things you want to do as executive director?

SH: In the past our litigation has mostly been handled by a handful of pro bono attorneys or law students at the Texas Tech clinic, and it’s been almost episodic. We haven’t been able to be proactive and strategic because we haven’t had a full-time staff attorney. I’m hoping we can hire a topflight staff attorney whose sole job is working for IPOT, somebody who’s a little older, has a little bit more experience.

As if Jeff Blackburn wasn’t old enough, experienced enough, successful enough in his IPOT efforts? Henson’s answer was offensive to all those whose efforts produced what the IPOT had accomplished. But now he was in charge, and he was going to recreate a spectacularly successful organization into . . . his organization.

It didn’t take long before Henson was out. It takes more then puffing one’s vision to run an organization. Most of it is nuts and bolts, keeping the lights on, keeping the website up and the bank account open, getting people to contribute money to pay for the grandiose plans, without selling out. These were not Henson’s strengths.


Talk is cheap.  The annual fee for the IPOT website comes due in January, and it’s days away from going down.  Nick Vibas understood what the job of executive director was.  After Henson was fired, Mike Ware put on that hat as well, but whether he has the interest or knowledge to do the grunt work necessary to keep IPOT alive remains unknown.

The Innocence Project of Texas was started with a mission.

The Innocence Project of Texas is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to securing the release of those wrongfully convicted of crimes in Texas and educating the public about the causes and effects of wrongful convictions.

What makes this mission critically important is that it’s Texas, where putting people to death is called Tuesday.  There was Tim Cole, whose story was told in the New Yorker. There was Cameron Todd Willingham, whose innocence is now widely acknowledged. There is a list of human beings whose lives were saved by IPOT, because Texas prosecutors like to convict a little too much, and Texas likes to kill people a little too much.

And now, given this monumental opportunity to capitalize off the spectacular publicity offered by the New Yorker article, by an organization that has achieved fabulous success in saving the lives of the wrongfully convicted, it’s barely capable of keeping its lights on.

If the desire is sincere on the part of good people on the board, good people involved in IPOT, to fulfill its mission rather than establish fame and adoration for some, the moment is at hand to recognize that in the span of less than a year, they have taken a well-oiled machine that accomplished remarkable feats and turned it into a steaming pile of shit.

Let go of the egos. Let go of the personal agendas, desire for fame and personal appreciation. Remember why IPOT was started, and that there are people who will die while you squabble over who gets credit for what. The IPOT can be fixed, returned to its position as the last bastion of hope for the wrongfully convicted in Texas. There will be no awards given to the guy at the helm when the IPOT crashes on the rocks and sinks.

There is a mission, and that mission is critical. Do you really want to be the ones to abort it?

6 thoughts on “Innocence Project of Texas: Mission Aborted

  1. John Barleycorn

    The twirls and swirls of a nonprofit’s board’s sense of direction and evolving mission statement calibrations in the real world far too often underestimates the critical nature of the executive director post.

    More often than not the future of a nonprofit organization hinges on a board’s ability to see past the quirks of a solid executive director and if they simultaneously lack the calm and patient demeanor required to allow the needed “attitude” and “latitude” a solid ED must be allowed, sooner rather later, the glue becomes brittle and what’s left in the bottle doesn’t taste so good anymore.

    On the bright side nonprofits are easy to start and some very successful ones wouldn’t be the mountains that they are today without the lessons learned from their fractured pasts.

    1. SHG Post author

      What are you trying to do, writing cogent and thoughtful comments? Is there nothing in life I can rely on anymore?

  2. Murray Newman

    As someone who appreciates fine writing, I can honestly say that I enjoy nothing more than reading a thoughtful, well articulated piece of writing that seamlessly incorporates the words “steaming pile of shit.”

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