When Jeff Blackburn, a founder of the Innocence Project of Texas and its chief counsel, tendered his resignation, it raised a storm of controversy. Jeff was gracious toward his organization, but it wasn’t his way to go quietly into the night. He didn’t quit without reason, and yet he didn’t seek to tank the organization he built that had accomplished extraordinary things. It’s not that the legal system in Texas is so much worse than anywhere else, but that they like killing people down there.
But then came an “announcement” that was more than he could take. It hit the fan from three sides, the IPTX website, the Houston Chronicle and a blog, Grits for Breakfast. Aside from Jeff, the other person who ran the show was the IPTX executive director, Nick Vilbas. Together, they made an underfunded, overworked organization do things that no one would have believed possible. They exonerated the innocent.
While Nick remains, as far as he knows, Executive Director, having made a promise to stay on long enough to facilitate the transition to “new management,” and honoring his promise to do so, because honorable guys do that, the announcement hit hard. There was a new Executive Director. Not just new, but one who had worked at IPTX before, but was “let go” as he just wasn’t worth keeping on.
He wasn’t a lawyer. He lacked a firm grasp of what lawyers do, grossly overestimating his knowledge of law and the legal system. He didn’t even like lawyers and had little respect for their efforts. That didn’t stop him from promoting his own views, often naïve and puny, always self-aggrandizing, but not always with high regard for the truth.
Yet, there it was, in black and white, a new Executive Director was named, and he was going to lead the Innocence Project of Texas to a “new era.” This was more than Jeff Blackburn could stomach. I asked Jeff what all this meant, and in an email Jeff let loose.
Thanks for asking me to comment on Scott Henson’s post about his becoming the new Executive Director of the Innocence Project of Texas (IPTX), and, more generally, about what is going on down here.
To the casual reader of “Grits for Breakfast,” everything must seem just peachy in Texas: we learn that there has been a “significant bout of staff turnover” at IPTX and that Scott, my “longtime friend,” has agreed to step in and become the new leader. In a gushy article in the Houston Chronicle, it is even suggested that his ascension will usher in some sort of “new era” of reforms at a “crucial” time.
That’s ok so far as it goes, I guess. The problem is that it doesn’t go anywhere at all. This post, like the IPTX’s official line on why I left, fails to explain why these events have happened, what is happening to the “innocence movement” in Texas and around the country, and what it means for criminal defense lawyers.
That’s a mistake. Big changes are going on in criminal defense and criminal justice reform right now, and what is happening in IPTX is only a small example. We need to discuss these changes freely and out in the open. Your blog is about the only place that can be done, and I sincerely thank you for that.
Here’s my contribution to that discussion:
Ten years ago, we created IPTX to be a fighting organization of criminal defense lawyers that could win cases, then use those victories to get statutes passed. We had a very clear, lawyer-driven, guerilla strategy. After a fair number of setbacks and missteps over the years, it worked- we got a lot of people out of prison, got some good stuff passed in the legislature, and managed to take our long-shot victory in the Tim Cole case all the way to getting a statue built in his honor and, now, an official commission named after him.
As lawyers, we knew what mattered to criminal defendants and what did not. We did all of this without getting co-opted into the state government even though we got a $100,000.00 per year payment from it through our Texas Tech clinic. We also avoided getting suckered into advocating minor, inoffensive reforms and calling them big just so we could say we had done something- a standard practice in Texas and one that Scott (Henson) is intimately familiar with. We picked, we chose, and overall we did pretty well. Of course, we were broke all the time and it required loads of unpaid effort, but who the hell was counting hours or money? It was the right thing to do and it made us feel fully alive.
While we were doing that some big changes happened. These changes put our ideas about IPTX on a collision course with the reality of power and money. Eventually, they would blow the whole project apart.
Three things happened:
1. The New York-based Innocence Project transformed itself into a multi-million dollar-a- year business replete with professional fundraisers, plaques for lawyers from Goldman Sachs, and $100,000.00 per table galas. These people began to do things that were solely designed to get publicity and make them money. They overstated the nature and extent of problems in forensic science. They exaggerated the number of wrongful death penalty convictions. They tried to kill good legislation.
Some of this behavior, all of which was done arrogantly and without ever even consulting us, messed up relationships we had formed with law enforcement officials. All of it messed up our ability to raise money for our work in this state. Finally, the New York people changed the structure of the national “Innocence Network” to allow them to be in full control. Do they still have good lawyers who do good work? Absolutely. Has that part of their operation been eclipsed by their United Way-level need to keep getting more and more money and please donors? Totally. Is there an innocence “movement” anymore? Not really. There’s just Goldman Sachs and business, baby, business.
2. Even bigger changes occurred during this period within the criminal defense bar as a whole. As a result of major sociological changes, criminal defense lawyers are now either fabulously-well-to-do lawyers that represent fabulously-well-to-do defendants, clowns with overblown websites who aspire to be fabulously-well-to-do lawyers, or incompetent, faceless drabs doing court appointments for a few hundred bucks a throw. There are plenty of us in the middle, of course- good lawyers who do good work because we believe in it- but our voices are increasingly drowned out. The big, top-down outfits like NACDL and our state group in Texas, TCDLA, reflect this shift- the seminars are slicker and more expensive, the big shots are praised more lavishly, and the efforts to get money from people like the Koch brothers or the government are more strenuous and frequently successful. So what’s wrong with all that?
Everything: criminal defense lawyers, whether we get it or not, are the canaries in the coal mine of this country’s government. Our calling and purpose is to sound the alarm against repression, organize resistance to it, and defend the interests of the poor slobs who don’t know any better out there. Are our national and state organizations doing that? Not really. Are we doing it on our own in our towns and cities? Not really, and damn sure not enough.
3. While facing these pressures, there was something even more insidious: the drive of the government in Texas to co-opt innocence work and housebreak the IPTX. The most recent example of this is the creation of the Tim Cole Exoneration Review Commission, a move being heralded as some sort of breakthrough in criminal justice reform. IPTX will be given a rotating token slot on this “Can’t-And-Won’t Do” commission, which will undoubtedly declare before long that the “problem” of wrongful convictions is “solved”. Does anyone want to bet that this commission will come within forty miles of dealing with the real reason people get wrongfully convicted in this state- our lack of a public defender system?
IPTX was faced with a choice in the face of these pressures- either go along and get along or change direction and break free of the hypocrisy. Nick Vilbas, the just-replaced Executive Director of IPTX and I wanted us to change direction. We wanted to break from the big-money phoniness of both the New York people and the leadership of the criminal defense organizations. We wanted to find a way back to the heart and soul of the criminal defense lawyers we are and believe in being. We chose to resist, even to the point of refusing money for the law school operation, getting co-opted by the government in Texas.
We lost that vote. The others won. I quit over it, and Nick will be out soon enough.
The folks who chose to stay in IPTX are good, well-intentioned lawyers. Scott Henson is indeed my old friend, and I wish him well with his “new era”.
My idea of a “new era” is a lot different than his, however.
My idea of a “new era” is one in which criminal defense lawyers start organizing at the local level for political change- change that can politicize the criminal justice system by demanding better indigent defense, citizen’s oversight of cops, bail reform, and a host of other things that can bring this repressive system to heel.
My idea of a “new era” is one in which criminal defense lawyers can reclaim their roles, their value to the community they live in, and their personal and professional worth.
My idea of a “new era” is one in which we truly are liberty’s first, and last, champions.
Is that era at hand? No. But it is damn sure worth fighting for.
Thanks for asking me about my thoughts, and thanks for your time and attention .
June 16, 2015
This was the “polite” version of what Jeff had to say. I’ve printed it in full, without interim commentary, so that my words or thoughts don’t impair his message. There will be time for that later.