Kevin Glasheen Fought to See Innocent Prisoners Compensated, Then Fought To Take Millions For Himself

The Lubbock lawyer teamed up with Innocent Project lawyer Jeff Blackburn to see the state compensation for exonerees raised. Now both men are under fire from their clients.

He considers himself an imperturbable optimist. His business relies on contingency fees; if the client doesn't get paid, neither does he. And in personal injury law, that often means reaching into the bottomless pockets of big companies knowing that he may come up empty handed — and out the money he spent digging around in there.

But he could come up big, and often did. In 1999, he backed international food giant Cargill into a corner when workers at its meatpacking plants started racking up injuries, forcing the company to settle. He obtained a $60-million verdict against Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railways, after one of its trains killed a family at a Friona railroad crossing. And he got an undisclosed sum for Ben Johnston, a former employee of military contractor DynCorp, after Johnston was fired for blowing the whistle on employees who trafficked in young women.

Sitting across from his PR rep, Glasheen started by repeating a common accusation leveled against him: that he's been "cherry-picking" the most lucrative exoneree cases. But in 2006, when Blackburn first approached him with Billy James Smith's case, Glasheen didn't see a cherry, he says.

Exonerated prisoners like Steven Phillips have been paid millions by the state. But no one's made more than their lawyers.
Danny Fulgencio
Exonerated prisoners like Steven Phillips have been paid millions by the state. But no one's made more than their lawyers.
Jeff Blackburn, the Innocence Project of Texas' chief legal counsel, has come under fire for fees he took from exonerated prisoners.
Danny Fulgencio
Jeff Blackburn, the Innocence Project of Texas' chief legal counsel, has come under fire for fees he took from exonerated prisoners.

Smith's story was certainly heartbreaking. He'd served two decades in prison for a rape he didn't commit. Like all of the recent exonerees, he was freed by DNA testing. But Smith's civil case was a dog. No one wanted it, and with good reason. Wrongful conviction suits are rare, and there was little case law to light the way. Glasheen would have been setting out on a dark, seldom-trod path. Before he could even argue his case before a jury, he'd have to prove that Smith's constitutionally protected rights had been violated because of an officially endorsed police department policy, and not simply the random misdeeds of a few bad actors. Then he'd have to get past the qualified immunity protections that insulate public servants, like the investigators in this case, from the civil complaints lodged every time they take a shoddy investigation to the D.A. And even if he won at trial, he still needed to get past the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans, renowned for its conservatism. He could see it all play out in his nimble legal mind — spending thousands in man hours and discovery, winning at the trial level, then getting reversed on appeal.

Cherry picking? Not a chance.

But those long odds seemed shorter with Blackburn in the mix. Back in 2003, Blackburn had won a legendary victory in Tulia, a tiny Panhandle town south of Amarillo. Ten percent of the town's black population had been convicted of selling drugs, based on the investigation of an itinerant cop who bounced from hamlet to hamlet in the Texas hinterlands, making questionable cases through dubious undercover work. Blackburn won a multimillion dollar judgment for his clients. The story became a PBS documentary and a book.

"One of the reasons I wanted Jeff on all these cases was because there was a lot of issues pertaining to their criminal prosecutions and exonerations that are outside my field of expertise," Glasheen says. "I was not willing to take on these cases without some competent lawyer, and preferably the best lawyer."

So they went to work, preparing Smith's case for trial and praying the City of Dallas would settle. Glasheen filed his first civil complaint in August 2007. At first, the city attorneys blew him off, identifying all the weaknesses in his case he was hoping they wouldn't see: the 5th Circuit's reputation and the twin ticking clocks that resounded in everyone's ear.

Smith could have filed with the state for compensation, $25,000 for each year he spent in prison. He didn't think that was enough, given the decades stolen from him. But under the law, he only had three years to collect. The city attorneys knew how drawn-out civil actions could be, Glasheen says, so they set about playing a game of legal chicken. They forced Smith to choose between staying the course and potentially losing, or collecting a guaranteed $500,000 from the state. If he chose the latter, he'd have to walk away from the lawsuit forever.

Glasheen, Blackburn and Kris Moore, Glasheen's associate, began gathering discovery. They identified the defects in the Dallas Police Department's eyewitness ID processes and the incurious police work that led to so many wrongful convictions. They attended dozens of churches, enlisting the city's religious leaders, and they rallied media and politicians around their cause.

This small army leaned on the city to do right by Billy James Smith. Meanwhile, Blackburn approached Glasheen with another potential client: Greg Wallis, who'd served 17 years for an Irving rape and burglary he didn't commit. Word moved around the cloistered exoneree community. More sought Glasheen's services. Momentum was building. Glasheen now had a stable of exonerees on whose behalf he filed complaint after complaint, against Dallas and a couple other cities. He filed seven in all, with other complaints at the ready. The message was unmistakable: A sizable group of men weren't going to accept the pittance offered by the state, and they were ready to go to court to collect what was owed.

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23 comments
colorado disability lawyer
colorado disability lawyer

Also, if the victim knows about the other driver's bad driving record, this factor could be crucial in the determination of liability. In a city where frequent motorcycle accidents happen, like Denver, a motorcycle accident lawyer in Denver should go through the arguments of liability to make sure that the victim did not forget something important. A motorcycle attorney in Denver is able to conduct a thorough investigation that could potentially lead to more supporting evidence in favor of the victim.

AlexAdam90209
AlexAdam90209

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EricG7676
EricG7676

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?

B Jjj
B Jjj

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.......

circeherbivora
circeherbivora

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!

Kevin_Glasheen
Kevin_Glasheen

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

circeherbivora
circeherbivora

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?

circeherbivora
circeherbivora

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.

Guest
Guest

The exonerees were already freed as a result of work done by attorneys other than Glasheen.

malasangre
malasangre

shut your bitch ass up? good one

Srvnutt
Srvnutt

People seem to forget that it's a LEGAL system....NOT a JUSTICE system. There's a big difference.

Guest
Guest

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!

Sidewinder
Sidewinder

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.

Scott Henson
Scott Henson

"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.

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

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.

 
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