As Lawyers Fight Over Exonerees' Money, the State Says Changes Must Be Made

Last Friday, 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

We were introduced to this case two years ago, when Phillips filed suit against Glasheen, the Lubbock-based attorney who loaned Phillips a few thou 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.

Glasheen says the money's not just for legal work, but for lobbying the state in '09 to increase the compensation due the wrongly imprisoned. Dallas's state Rep. Rafael Anchía authored the bill that increased the figure from $50,000 for each year behind bars to $80,000. Exonerees are given half of what they're owed up front; the rest is doled out via monthly annuity checks.

A trial in the case is set for the fall, but Friday's hearing was sparked by Phillips's motion for to get the case thrown out. Molberg must decide whether 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 take money belonging to 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.

Steven Phillips
What Molberg decides will impact 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 docs filed in the Waller-Giles case, has collected more than $330,000 of the exonerees' compensation, despite never working on either man's case. In fact, they say they've never heard of him. Giles's plea in intervention filed last month alleges that Blackburn uses his position at IPOT to refer cases to Glasheen, who then gives Blackburn a "kickback."

Randall Turner, the attorney representing all three exonerees, used the same word when we spoke Wednesday: "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 told Unfair Park yesterday 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."

Another person got some money too: attorney Mike Ware, who, till tomorrow, is the head of Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins's Conviction Integrity Unit. Perhaps you saw the behind-the-paywall story in the paper today about that.

Glasheen told Unfair Park yesterday that Ware, then in private practice, sent him two cases: Billy James Smith, a DNA exoneree who spent 19 years and 11 months in prison for a rape he did not commit, and Greg Wallis, who was exonerated in '07 after serving 17 years for a rape he also didn't commit.

"I've known Jeff Blackburn for many years, and at that time Jeff and Mike were repping Smith and Wallis in private practice," Glasheen says. "Jeff asked me several times to get involved, and I declined, and eventually I agreed to accept those cases. They referred 'em to me, and I went forward with 'em...And when he referred those cases, he retained an interest in the fees. But when he went to work for the district attorney, [Ware] disclosed that interest to the DA and got permission to keep it, and got an independent legal opinion that it was both legal and ethical to do it. Now, when Mike went to work for the DA's office, their exonerations were complete, and all that remained was for them to get compensation, which the DA's office had nothing to do with."

Glasheen first came to our attention back in August 2007, when he filed a federal civil rights and malicious prosecution lawsuit against the city of Dallas on behalf of Smith. Ultimately, six more exonerees' cases were added to that one. But Glasheen and the city agreed to set aside the case while attorneys from both sides lobbied the state to up compensation for the wrongfully imprisoned. And away the cases went.
I asked Glasheen how many exonerees he's dealt with over the past few years; he said he's consulted with 18, and that there were "12 in the original group that hired us to pursue civil rights or statutory compensation."

Then, I asked: How were the cases referred to you?

"The exonerees network quite a bit together, so when word got out we were doing this, they ended up getting referred to us by multiple sources," he said. "One person might hear about us from four, five other people. Mostly it was our existing clients telling other exonerees. And some lawyers recommended us too," he said, among them, Curtis Stuckey in Nacogdoches.

"I have a note he recommended someone to hire us," he said. "But mostly it's the exonerees, the existing clients. Once it got a lot of media attention, we had people who found us through news reports."

As far as Turner, the exonerees' lawyer, is concerned, the cases are cut-and-dried: His clients, and all exonerees, are entitled to their money, and attorneys need to keep their mitts off it. After all, he says, Gov. Rick Perry just signed a law last week that caps the amount of dough lawyers can get from cases involving the wrongly accused; the new law says that at best, attorneys can charge an hourly rate, but can't take a percentage off the top. It's their money. They earned spending years, often decades, in prison for something they didn't do.

"We're saying this contract was unconscionable and is unenforcable," Turner told Unfair Park Wednesday. "The legislature agrees with us. The bill Perry signed last week makes it illegal to do what Glasheen's trying to do. To get compensation, [an exoneree] has to fill out a one-page form, and it's outrageous a lawyer would try to get a fee for filling out a one-page form."

But much work remains to be done on behalf of the wrongly imprisoned seeking their statutory compensation: Moments ago, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs's office sent out a press release saying that Anthony Graves -- who spent 18 years in prison, most of them on death row, for a crime he didn't commit -- will finally get the $1.45 million he's owed by the state, which initially refused to cut him the check because his exoneration paperwork didn't say "actual innocence."

But, says the release, Graves's case "also highlighted the need for the wrongful imprisonment compensation statute to be reviewed through a study or workgroup."

"We have to follow what's set in state law when reviewing applications for compensation," Combs says. "We have paid more than $41 million to about 70 people. But the initial Anthony Graves application showed there are wrongfully imprisoned Texans who may not have the required legal documents as outlined in statute to receive compensation. So we hope to work with lawmakers and any interested groups to look at the compensation law and see how it can be improved."

Below are some legal docs filed in the cases mentioned above.Steven Phillips v Kevin GlasheenPhillipsvGlasheenGilesInterventioninWaller

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky