By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Steven Phillips was about to boil over. This, the attorneys in the room must have known, wasn't good for anyone.
At 51, Phillips had a delicate drawl, but the rest of him was all rangy wildcat sinew. He was a bit of a genetic oddity. He didn't lift weights, yet his neck was thick, tapered upward from a large pair of muscles that sat like small hillocks on his shoulders. He was a native Texan, born in Abilene, but he'd grown up in the Arkansas Ozarks and had, until just recently, handled himself just fine for 25 years in a couple of Texas prisons, including the Coffield Unit, populated by violent felons.
Now, here he was, in January 2010, in a Dallas skyscraper getting prodded about his marginal history as a sex addict and a peeping Tom. Phillips wasn't denying any of that. He knew he'd come a long way since his parole got revoked in '97, when he scaled a woman's balcony and peered through her window. But those turbulent nights lay in the distant past. He worked at keeping it that way every single day, adhering to a rigid 12-step program. "Every man is responsible for working out his own salvation," Phillips liked to say.
As far as he was concerned, this lawyer was just flinging mud. He thought he was there to get grilled about a lawsuit he'd filed against a guy named Jeff Blackburn, a famed Amarillo defense attorney known for his work with the Innocence Project of Texas, and against Kevin Glasheen, a top-gun personal-injury lawyer from Lubbock, who was in the room at this very moment, monitoring the deposition. What did any of this have to do with his case?
Phillips' suit was over the $1 million and change he'd been charged by Glasheen. Their partnership, he says, began as a plan to file a lawsuit against the city of Dallas, whose police force decades before had made the arrest that sent Phillips away. The lawsuit never got filed, but in the spring of 2009, not long after Phillips hired Glasheen, Texas lawmakers passed a bill more than tripling the amount of money the state pays the wrongfully convicted. The law had been championed by Glasheen and Blackburn. According to Glasheen, that championing was part of their work as Phillips' lawyers. But after the law passed, Phillips fired Glasheen and filed the compensation papers with the state himself. Now he wanted a judge to void that contract and block Glasheen from collecting 25 percent on the $4 million coming Phillips' way.
Blackburn's attorney, Vince Nowak, was a testy bulldog, and he took the suit against his client and friend personally. He handed Phillips a book about sex addiction, in which Phillips had anonymously authored a chapter.
"Will you tell me what the title of Exhibit No. 4 is?" Nowak asked.
"Shut it down," one of Phillips' lawyers, Tom McKenzie, said.
But Nowak kept pushing buttons, and McKenzie kept pushing back. Phillips was a keening kettle now, and he'd had enough.
"Shut your bitch-ass up," Phillips swore at Nowak.
"Hey, hey, hey!" another of Phillips' lawyers cautioned.
Nowak didn't seem to hear him. He continued to argue with McKenzie.
"Fixin' to take your ass outside, dude, if you keep that up," Phillips warned.
Nowak heard him this time.
"Well, do you want to take my ass outside right now?" Nowak asked.
Phillips' attorneys attempted to defuse him.
"Take a break," Nowak said, dismissively. "Take a bathroom break."
"Shut your bitch-ass up, dude," Phillips muttered as he made his way toward the door, which put Nowak directly in the path of a pissed-off prison-hardened man.
"Call 911! I'm not joking," Nowak said. "Your witness just threatened me. Keep it on the record. You heard that."
It had all soured so quickly. Not just this deposition, but the whole case, the whole conversation about compensating innocent prisoners, about how much is owed to them when the legal system gets it wrong. This was only the latest dust-up in a knock-down brawl within the Texas exoneree and legal communities over the glut of cash loosed by the state comptroller following the passage of that bill. What should have been a great victory for Glasheen and Blackburn on behalf of Texas' exonerees — due in no small part to some inventive, outside-of-the-box advocacy — was now worn like a pair of scarlet letters signifying greed and suspicion. A pall was cast over the Innocence Project of Texas for its connection to these lawyers, who some now believed saw newly exonerated men as walking, talking paychecks.
Meanwhile, a big piece of the pie that should have eased Steven Phillips' life was destined for the pockets of attorneys, who in turn were fighting to keep the money from other attorneys. It was the sort of unhappy ending few foresaw during the heady days when Texas' compensation scheme went from criminally stingy to stand-out generous.
As Phillips strode to the bathroom to cool off, McKenzie tried to calm down Nowak. "Listen," he began.
"I don't give a shit if he did 26 years," Nowak broke in. "He called my client a liar, Mr. McKenzie. I'm asking him what lies my client told. I think that's a fair question."
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We would also like to see a story with the list of names of the prosecuting attornies that wrongfully prosecuted. Who are they? Where are they now? Have those prosecuting attornies also wrongfully prosecuted others in the past? Are those prosecuting attornies currently wrongfully prosecuting others?
If a lawyer is ripping off a client in Texas, the client should file an official complaint with the Texas Bar Association's Office of Disciplinary Council: http://www.texasbar.com/AM/Tem...
Without Glasheen these people wouldnt be getting the extra cash.....and Glasheen put his own cash and time on the line on a risky venture........now that his efforts pay off they dobn't like the agreement.....they took Glasheen's cash and cars because they were backed into a corner...so what? No one else was offering........
I'm not a big fan of lawyers but Glasheen had the plan to bring in the big money and now that he has they tell him to eff off........I guess Glasheen should have expected it considering the people he was dealing with.......
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So, how much work DID the lawyers perform on his case before he "fired" them? Did he wait until it was all over but the shouting and try to complete the last paperwork for himself to avoid their bills? Did he pay them ANYTHING for their efforts?What was the contract he originally signed with them? Details- please!
Texas is a test-case. I hope that the end-result of these lawsuits, including the lawsuit against Glasheen by the State Bar of Texas (SBOT), will be the establishment of clear, fair, policy changes. We need clarified policies put forth by both the judicial and legislative branches that will 1) benefit exonerees first and foremost, 2) prevent attorney exploitation, 3) make a way for attorneys (who are actually responsible for the release of those wrongfully convicted, meaning they did the work!) to be fairly paid according to the law. Phillips, Waller, and Giles are brave and have all my respect. Blackburn has been an innocence movement maverick, and will regain respect in time. Dallas and Texas started an amazing innocence movement. Let's keep it going! Judges, legislators, and SBOT -- please do what's right!
If all of this was spelled out a little clearer in the beginning then we wouldn't be having this little squabble. Who's responsibility is it to get things clarified in the first place so there's no question about clients getting taken advantage of? I see a bright line between traditional legal work and lobbying for legislation that needs to be spelled out clearly in any contingency fee agreement. The absence of such clarifying language should set the benefit of the doubt toward the client. More specifically, a vague "services rendered" should not include lobbying for legislation. The implication for "services rendered" clearly resides within the domain of traditional legal representation. This obfuscation puts the client at a lack of bargaining power in setting the terms of the transaction (if the client had known he could have arrived at an amount based upon the effort put forth relative to the number of other exonerees under contract with the attorney). I feel that the judge is misguided in considering what is fair for the attorney when the proper consummation of the engagement seemingly never took place. Now the exoneree is out additional legal fees in order to clarify what was inadequately spelled out in the first place.
I represented Steven. When he hired us, we were already representing 12 other exonorees. Steven signed a contract to pay us 25% of state statutory compensation, or 40% of recovery in civil rights litigation. If the clients accepted state statutory compensation, they had to give up their right to pursue civil rights litigation the clients didn't want to accept the state statutory compensation because it only paid 50k per year of incarceration. (20 years = 1 million). We had filed 7 civil rights lawsuits.
We made a deal with the city of dallas to put the litigation on hold while the legislature was in session, to see if we could get the state statutory compensation increased enough to satisfy our clients. The legislature increased compensation to 160k/yr of incarceration, half cash and half paid out over the claimant's lifetime, with interest. (Under the new law 20 years = 3.2 million vs just 1 million under the old law.).
Most of the clients elected to take statutory compensation. A couple of clients proceeded with litigation. Steven indicated he wanted statutory compensation. One week before the law went into effect Steven fired us and filed for statutory compensation.on his own. He then sued us to try to void the contract. Steven has never paid us anything, nor has he offered to.
My law firm spent thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars on these claims, with no assurance of a recovery. The litigation could have proceeded, at each client's option. Statutory compensation is not a "sure thing" either. We have had to take several statutory compensation claims up to the Texas Supreme Court in order to compel the State to pay.
Most clients then elected
"If all of this was spelled out a little clearer in the beginning then we wouldn't be having this little squabble."
There's some truth to that, but I can tell you from first-hand knowledge that in this case all that was indeed spelled out clearly, certainly orally if not in the fee agreement (which I have not seen).
I happen to have been the only non-exoneree, non-attorney in the room in 2009 when Glasheen et. al. spoke to his clients (in a hotel conference room in Dallas) about restructuring their fee agreements if Ellis/Anchia's legislation passed increasing compensation amounts. Glasheen lowered his fee from 40% to 25% if the civil suits he'd filed were settled because the clients chose state compensation. (Remember, all these men had rejected state compensation at lower rates and chosen instead to sue.) All the issues discussed in this article (and quite a few others) were debated at great length, with exonerees (including some now suing Glasheen) asking plenty of questions and receiving what IMO were honest answers.
Having literally been in the room - I was there to give a legislative update so the exonerees would know first-hand exactly where the compensation bill stood - I can tell you I personally did not feel like anyone was misled or taken advantage of. Whether some state bar fee rule was violated I do know know, but as far as whether anyone was misled: Absolutely not. In retrospect, people look at the increase in compensation as inevitable, but really it happened in large part BECAUSE it settled all these cases. (There was a tort-reform aspect to the compensation bill that's often ignored but was key to GOP support, reducing lawsuits against cities and counties, especially in the Dallas area.)
Hindsight is 20/20, and nobody likes giving lawyers a cut of their legal winnings after the fact. But without contingency contracts, poor folks can't get into civil court, and all these exonerees hired Glasheen expressly because they made a choice not to accept the lower compensation amount ($50K flat per year falsely incarcerated, no annuity), just like after 2009 they could have chosen to reject the higher compensation amount and move forward with their suits. These were grown men making informed decisions, IMO, not suckers being duped. Bottom line: Even giving their lawyers 25%, everybody is better off than they would have been if they'd never hired Glasheen and taken the $50K compensation they were entitled to upon release. Which is exactly why they all took the deal: Not because they were marks for some greedy lawyer, but out of rational self interest.
Thank you, Mr. Glasheen. Unfortunately the comment system seems to have cut off the rest of your post, but I get the idea. I can't say that everyone will understand. People LOVE to pillory lawyers, but they forget that many of them are technicians, artists even, and devote hours upon hours to their craft. There's a reason that law school is very difficult and very expensive! Shoddy legal work can destroy a person as thoroughly as a slipshod doctor can. The attorneys on this case (you) deserve to be paid too- and how much is it worth to have your freedom and your life back? I'm sorry those prisoners thought they won the lottery and didn't have to share- but they didn't get out on their own. It took months of sweat and man-hours to do it- so what do they think is a fair payment for that?
Really, if you work for or even around the lawyers, as you and Circeherbivora do, you are not unbiased. The real crime is that no organization or entity would lobby the legislature on the behalf of the wrongfully convicted without the expectation of huge compensation. No one, least of all the Innocence Project of Texas, would do it simply because it's the right thing to do. That's what's missing from this story, that kind of analysis. We are so jaded that no one expects anything unless it's for the mighty dollar. I have no doubt that the lawyers, though skilled at their craft and very well connected in the good ole boy network that prevails in Texas, were in it first, for the money, and second, for the glory.
My mistake. Allow me to correct my thought. Ahem. Phillips accepted Glasheen's assistance in the HOPES of receiving a large compensation pay off. He received not ONLY legal assistance but also medical and financial aid and even a car. All of which, given his criminal history PRIOR to the wrongful conviction, he was probably desperately in need of. Personally, I would have been profoundly grateful- its hard enough to find work or a helping hand, especially in this economy.
But not Phillips. When he saw in writing how much money was involved, dollar signs flashed in his eyes and he forgot how much he had promised to his benefactor, in fact, how much he was indebted to him.
Folks, do you realize there are still states that won't even remove the conviction from a person's file once they've been exonerated? They still have to pay a fee to remove it! So, getting that compensation was a HUGE victory. Apparently people think it all happened by magic and for free.