Texas' Innocent Prisoners Are Getting Compensated, and Their Lawyers Want in On the Deal

Texas' Innocent Prisoners Are Getting Compensated, and Their Lawyers Want in On the Deal

On June 29, in Judge Ken Molberg's courtroom, attorneys representing Steven Phillips and Kevin Glasheen argued over money, which is what attorneys often do when they clash in courtrooms. At stake: around $1 million, which Glasheen says he's owed by Phillips per an agreement they made three years ago. Phillips doesn't want to pay the money. He earned every penny, he says—by serving 24 years in prison for a sexual assault and robbery he didn't commit.

The hearing before Molberg came in a lawsuit Phillips filed two years ago against Glasheen, the Lubbock-based attorney who loaned Phillips a few thousand dollars in '08 to help the Dallas man get back on his feet, and who now says he's owed 25 percent of the $4 million the state will compensate Phillips for his time spent behind bars.

Phillips was convicted in 1982 based largely on eyewitness testimony from a victim in one of a string of 11 incidents in which local women were raped or sexually molested, according to the Innocence Project, which assisted Phillips in obtaining DNA testing on biological evidence from the crime. The tests cleared Phillips and implicated another man, a convicted rapist who died in prison while Phillips was incarcerated.

Steven Phillips served 24 years in prison for a sexual assault he didn't commit. Now free, he stands to receive $4.1 million in restitution from the state but is suing his former lawyer, Kevin Glasheen, who claims he's owed a quarter of that amount.
AP Photo/LM Otero
Steven Phillips served 24 years in prison for a sexual assault he didn't commit. Now free, he stands to receive $4.1 million in restitution from the state but is suing his former lawyer, Kevin Glasheen, who claims he's owed a quarter of that amount.
Innocence Project of Texas chief counsel Jeff Blackburn (left) celebrates with Charles Chatman in 2008 as Chatman leaves a Dallas courtroom cleared of a wrongful rape conviction that put Chatman behind bars for 27 years. Chatman paid Glasheen 25 percent of the money he received from Texas in compensation post-exoneration. Blackburn, meanwhile, has collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in "referral fees" for sending Innocence Project clients to private lawyers.
AP Photo/Tim Sharp
Innocence Project of Texas chief counsel Jeff Blackburn (left) celebrates with Charles Chatman in 2008 as Chatman leaves a Dallas courtroom cleared of a wrongful rape conviction that put Chatman behind bars for 27 years. Chatman paid Glasheen 25 percent of the money he received from Texas in compensation post-exoneration. Blackburn, meanwhile, has collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in "referral fees" for sending Innocence Project clients to private lawyers.

Glasheen now says Phillips owes him money not just for legal work, but for lobbying the state in '09 to increase the compensation due the wrongly imprisoned. Dallas state Representative Rafael Anchía authored the bill that increased the figure from $50,000 for each year behind bars to $80,000, paid out in a combination of a lump sum and monthly annuity payments.

A trial in the case is set for the fall, but the June 29 hearing was sparked by Phillips' motion for summary judgment. Phillips wants Molberg to declare the contract between Phillips and Glasheen is "unconscionable" and "unenforceable," two words often used when discussing this case. Matter of fact, the State Bar of Texas used them just last January when it filed suit against Glasheen for trying to collect fees from Phillips and another exoneree, Patrick Waller, who also has a case pending against Glasheen in Dallas County. In May, another exoneree, James Giles, joined the Waller suit, which is scheduled for trial on January 23.

What Molberg decides will affect a lot of cash spread out among a lot of people, including the exonerees, Glasheen and Innocence Project of Texas chief counsel Jeff Blackburn, who, according to documents filed in the Waller-Giles case, has collected more than $330,000 of the exonerees' compensation, although the exonerees say they've never heard of him. Giles' plea in an intervention filed last month alleges that Blackburn uses his position at IPOT to refer cases to Glasheen, who then gives Blackburn a "kickback."

Repeated calls to Blackburn for comment were not returned.

Randall Turner, the attorney representing all three exonerees, used the same word—"kickback"—when he spoke to the Observer last week: "Blackburn was on the board of the Innocence Project, and what he would do is cherry-pick cases where exonerees are due the most money, and then he would refer them to Glasheen and get a kickback for doing a referral—what he would call a referral fee."

Blackburn's attorney has said there is no conflict of interest, and Glasheen says he stands by his argument that he's owed money in these cases: "I was the only person willing to take on this project of trying to help these guys get more compensation than was available at the time through the state's compensation."

Anchía says that when Blackburn lobbied the state Legislature to up the compensation due exonerees, he did so on behalf of the Innocence Project of Texas—meaning, the state representative says, he had no idea Blackburn stood to pocket any money coming to the wrongfully convicted.

"I thought he was a public interest lawyer," Anchía says when asked about Blackburn. "That's how it was represented to me: He was a lawyer for a nonprofit. He never disclosed he had a financial interest, and that's troubling. When you're shrouded in the Innocence Project of Texas, which is a nationally known nonprofit, and he didn't disclose he was going to make money, that's disappointing."

According to information provided by Glasheen's public relations representative, he and the lawyers at his firm worked more than 4,500 hours, incurred $500,000 in out-of-pocket expenses on these contingent fee cases and extended $1 million in loans to these men. These cases were not easy and few if any other attorneys were willing to take them at the time, back in 2006-2007. As Judge Molberg noted from the bench on June 24, lawyers have a duty to "increase options" for their clients and lobbying is just one of the tools that they routinely use to accomplish that.

Nevertheless, the fight over money in Dallas could have wider implications for the loosely affiliated collection of groups—IPOT among them—that share information and resources and work on behalf of the wrongly convicted across the country.

"I would say probably the single biggest issue we're facing, the new frontier of the innocence movement, is life after exoneration," says David Protess, founder and president of the Innocence Project of Chicago, launched in April.

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12 comments
You may say I'm a dreamer
You may say I'm a dreamer

Um, who's the ones being greedy?!?! I'll wager no suit would've been filed against Glasheen if he had been reasonable in his compensation demands.

You may say I'm a dreamer
You may say I'm a dreamer

No one is saying that lawyers should'n't be paid. But these lawyers hoodwinked the innocent, who, after decades sitting in prison, did not have the wherewithal to understand the contracts they signed with the lawyer and probably trusted the Innocence Project lawyer who referred them.to Glasheen. Really, no amount of money can give them back the years they lost and the trauma of what they've experienced.

You may say I'm a dreamer
You may say I'm a dreamer

These lawyers misrepresented themselves. Blackburn was allegedly working as a representative of the Innocence Project, but he used that organizations resources to cherry pick the best cases for his buddy, Glasheen, who gave him the agreed upon kickback. They're in this mess because they've overreached. No, working for free is not something lawyers do, but naked greed and exploitative practices like this should be reined in.

Nokilljoe
Nokilljoe

Lawyer Randy Turner stated he was only charging the three clients his going rate of $300/hr. His going rate is actually $250/hr. He stated this in court two weeks ago to a judge. He's even ripping off his own clients. Ever since tort reform his business has been way down. That's why he's been doing some pro-bono work. Odd he's not helping out these three clients for free. They were innocent. One pro-bono client was Steven Woods the fake lraqi war veteran whose dog bit two elderly people. Turner lost the case but helped Woods bilk people out of donations. He's also representing a woman who committed animal cruelty pro-bono. She owns property and her husband is an engineer. Turner doesn't charge her but he does charge three innocent men with no money? Turner wants part of the big compensation just like the other lawyers. Greedy lawyers all of them.

glittermama
glittermama

So lawyers are scumbags ! What else is new?

Cp9193
Cp9193

So lawyers are scumbags! What else is new?

Maria
Maria

Buy and read Tested by Dorothy and Peyton Budd on the subject of wrongly convicted men in Texas.

Hugh
Hugh

"I take it from the comments I see that the deadbeats here on this posting believe that attorneys are supposed to work for free. Do you work for free? Does your doctor? Your plumber? Your mechanic?" No, of course not. But then people expect teachers and government workers to labor for next to nothing, so why not attorneys? Or doctors?

Hugh
Hugh

It's not a question of the DNA not matching because the sample has degraded with time. Absence of a match is not proof that someone else did it. Texas has many people still in prison for whom the DNA proves they weren't the rapist, but it can't exclude them from being present at the crime scene, so they continue to serve time. The samples in this case were good enough to 1) exclude Phillips and 2) to implicate someone else. You should not be worried that we might erroneously freeing a guilty man, you should be concerned about the number of innocent people who have been convicted and later proven to be innocent. From the founding of this country we long held the view that it was preferable to free a hundred guilty men to wrongly convicting a single innocent man, but now we seem not to care that we regularly convict the innocent and those who do are dismissed as "liberals".

Exonr8
Exonr8

That's absurd. One case is obviously litigation, the other some would be slick lobbying in Austin...or whatever. Now, you figure out which case a Texas Attorney should be involved in. Haha. Thank you verry much.

Azlemolly
Azlemolly

how many people do you know who work for free?

 
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