By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Sorry. Shouldn't criticize the reader like that, but Buzz has been in a funk over reader responses to two recent Observer stories. First was "The Wrong Guy," by Mark Donald, on March 4. It was the tale of an emotionally unstable, harmless man who quit his job one day in a huff. One thing led to another, and because of some panic on behalf of his former employer, plus some really atrocious police work, he wound up charged with a murder he didn't commit. In fact, the cops may have known pretty quickly that he was innocent but held him anyway. We received an anonymous letter after the story ran pointing out that the guy may have been innocent, but he seemed to be a bit of an asshole; so why were we picking on the cops?
Next came Jim Schutze's column last week about the arrest of a Mesquite man for walking around his neighborhood taking snapshots, which is not a crime. Near as we can tell, his actual offense was "showing insufficient obsequiousness to cops," which in these parts will get you a quicker trip to the pokey than shooting off a gun on a street corner. We received a bunch of letters on that one. Their general theme was "Why are you jerks picking on the Mesquite police?"
That wasn't the response we had in mind. It's supposed to work this way: Newspaper exposes injustice; outraged readers demand justice--not outraged readers tell newspaper to shut up. We were feeling blue about all this and needed some reinvigorating. So we called Jeff Blackburn.
Blackburn is a criminal defense attorney and devoted advocate for civil liberties--a neat trick, since he lives in the Panhandle, where such creatures are about as expected as redwood trees. He led the Tulia Legal Defense Project, whose work helped secure pardons for 35 people accused of drug crimes largely on the word of a rotten cop. He spent a chunk of his own money working on the cases, and he is not, as you might imagine, a well-loved man in some corners of the Panhandle. He's heard second- and third-hand rumors that some narcotics cops would gladly see him dead. He's been called a radical and accused of playing the "race card." (Nearly all the Tulia defendants were black.)
We met Blackburn 20 years ago, when Buzz was a cub reporter in Amarillo and he was a baby lawyer. Even then, he approached civil liberties with something like religious zeal. ("Criminal defense lawyers are the last line of defense for our civil liberties," he told us then.) We asked how he manages to keep up the good fight after all these years. His answer was unexpectedly cheerful and optimistic.
"If you were to read the newspapers, you'd think the only constitutional value Texans believe in is the right to armed prayer," he said, and laughed. "I've copyrighted that joke, by the way."
Yet in 20 years of trying cases, he says, he's found that even among conservative Texans there is a "core system of American values." Demonstrate that the government has convicted an innocent, he says, and most folks will line up on your side--though the government and law enforcement may not.
"I still think people believe in the First Amendment," Blackburn told us. "They're a little shaky on the Fourth...that's the 'drug dealers' amendment...but nobody thinks innocent people should go to jail."
Well, he hasn't been reading some of our mail, but then he's no doubt heard worse, and he still loves his work.
"It's a cool job," Blackburn says. "It's a complete existence."
We feel better now. Thanks, Jeff.