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."
Steven Phillips felt an inch taller that day in 2007, when Judge Lena Levario apologized to him on behalf of the State of Texas. He'd just finished serving a quarter-century bid for a two-day spree of sex assaults in the early 1980s. In 2006, the national Innocence Project, headquartered in New York, had taken an interest in his case, convincing Dallas County's newly elected district attorney, Craig Watkins, to allow DNA testing to rule out other suspects. When the results came in, what Phillips knew to be true was finally proven beyond doubt: It was another man whose DNA profile matched the real attacker's.
On August 5, 2007, the day of his official exoneration, Phillips had already been out for six months on parole. He'd been living in a halfway house near the American Airlines Center, a GPS unit strapped to his ankle. He thought he might strain from smiling as he hiked his pant leg and watched the unit cut from his body. What a day the Lord has made, he thought.
Inside the Frank Crowley Courts Building, camera lenses focused on Phillips' beaming visage. Visiting dignitaries, including Watkins and Innocence Project founder Barry Scheck, shook Phillips' hand in congratulations. The judge even gave him a hug. Phillips met his son Zachary for the first time that day. He even saw detective P.E. Jones — the man whose investigation led to his conviction — on the way out of the courthouse. Phillips swears the cop broke a sweat when they stood in the elevator together, a particularly sweet modicum of vengeance.
Even sweeter, he had his girl, Connie Jean — a wiry, garrulous firecracker with a deep suntan and a cigarette-roughened voice — at his side. They had met at the James Group Ministries, a faith-based 12-step program where they both worked on their respective addictions and edited its publications. She was smoking a cigar outside; he'd always wondered what it was like to kiss a woman who smoked cigars. Within 24 hours, he found out. And here she was at his side, propping him up when he felt he might dissolve under the joy of the moment.
Then came the next day. And the day after that, and Phillips suddenly found himself grappling with a world radically different from the one he'd left back in 1982. He could no longer count on the three square meals that he knew waited for him in the chow line at Coffield. The roof over his head, or the lack thereof, was now his own responsibility.
Not long after his exoneration, he and Connie Jean split up, so Phillips lit out for the Ozarks. His brother ran a three-star restaurant at a motel and motorcycle resort up in Marble Falls, Arkansas. Phillips washed dishes and cooked, took cigarette breaks and breathed in that clean air and the smoke, looking out over the mountains. He was just down the road from Harrison, his hometown, from the fishing and swimming holes he hadn't seen since he was younger, back from a stint with an artillery regiment in Germany. So he'd borrow his nephew's Ford pickup and fly down the country roads, the curves still etched into memory. He even looked up an old flame named Diana. He hadn't seen her since high school. When they saw each other after so many years, he says, it happened in the rain while Bad Company's "Feel Like Making Love" blared from the stereo of his shambling Isuzu Rodeo.
But it wasn't long before Phillips was feeling the pinch. The Rodeo was sputtering and coughing. He figured it was the fuel pump. He couldn't afford the repairs, so Phillips placed a call to Kevin Glasheen's firm up in Lubbock. Michelle Moore, a Dallas public defender who helped free exonerees, had recommended Glasheen as someone who might help Phillips sue the city.
Glasheen was quick to come to Phillips' rescue. He dispatched one of his lawyers, Kris Moore, to Springfield, Missouri, an hour and a half north of Harrison. They met at a Waffle House.
"I needed a break, right? I was broke," Phillips recalls. "I hate to say it, but it was all about the money." And there was Glasheen's guy with a $3,500 check. Moore told him the firm would take care of some living expenses and get him a truck — a cherry-red, late-model Toyota Tacoma with the full TRD Off-Road package.
In exchange, Phillips would have to sign a contract agreeing to pay Glasheen's firm a fee for any civil judgment or "statutory compensation." Phillips agreed. Moore drove him to the Bass Pro Shop so he could cash the check, and from there Phillips caught a bus down to Dallas.
On a recent afternoon, Kevin Glasheen parked his personal plane, which he'd just flown into Dallas from a camping trip with his son's Scout troop, and made his way to the gleaming office of his downtown PR reps. His thatchy brown hair was parted and looked courtroom-ready, but he seemed relaxed in a pair of hiking shoes, canvas pants and a short-sleeved button-down.
He spoke as only men who talk for a living do — in long, often winding complete thoughts laced with war metaphors. The son of a Garland dry cleaner and school teacher, Glasheen says he was a mediocre econ student at Texas A&M but found his legs at Texas Tech's law school. When he graduated, he turned down a lucrative job with a firm that represented insurance companies, and struck out on his own instead, starting his own firm out of a $400-a-month office space.
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.
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.
In the fall of 2008, Kris Moore says, he got on a conference call with Dallas' city attorneys, attempting to schedule a slate of hearings. "They said, 'Be honest, how many more are you planning on filing?'" Moore recalls. He began to list the other suits they planned to file. "There was silence on the other end of the line." (The City Attorney's Office had not responded to questions from the Observer at press time.)
Shortly after, at a brainstorming session in Glasheen's office, they devised a plan: Why deal with the headache and uncertainty of litigation when you can get more money for all of the clients at once, by petitioning the legislature to raise the compensation rate? Both Moore and Glasheen claim they ran the idea past their clients and got thumbs up all around.
So on October 28, 2008, in a letter to Dallas' attorneys, Glasheen proposed a highly unusual settlement: Help us lobby the legislature to increase the compensation to $250,000 for every year imprisoned. In exchange, Glasheen would drop the lawsuits.
He was rebuffed once again, but the pressure on the city was growing, from legislators like Texas Representative Rafael Anchia, ministers, news stories and a budget shortfall that increased calls for austerity over litigation. As more men convicted in Dallas were exonerated on DNA evidence — more than a dozen have been cleared since Watkins took office in 2007 — the kind of pattern Glasheen needed was rapidly emerging.
Finally, in March 2009, after months of stalled negotiations, Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert agreed to join Glasheen's cause in the 81st Texas Legislature. Irving was in too, but support from a couple municipalities didn't mean legislation was guaranteed. Of all the states in the union to take the lead on exoneree compensation, smart money would have steered clear of Texas. And there was no guarantee Glasheen's clients wouldn't pursue a civil rights action anyway.
But Glasheen hadn't yet played all his cards. A perennial GOP donor, his firm wields significant political clout in North Texas, particularly with Senator Bob Duncan, a Lubbock Republican. Duncan agreed to carry the bill through the Senate as a cost-saving measure for cities.
Meanwhile, Glasheen had clients to manage. Many of them had forgotten how to live on the outside. They were often unemployable. Persistent health problems made their lives expensive and messy, and sex offenses are hard to scrub from a criminal background even for the exonerated.
Betting on success, the firm bankrolled its clients' living expenses. Glasheen says the payments are common in personal injury work, and says he advanced $1 million to the exonerees he represented, including Phillips. They were forgoing the quick and easy buck, Glasheen says, so it was up to him to provide in the meantime. The law allows for "necessary and reasonable" advances for living expenses, he says, like the $2,500 he paid to have a cancerous lesion removed from Phillips' skin and the insurance premium on that Toyota.
But Glasheen often stretched the definition of "reasonable," leaving his critics convinced that the advances were nothing but golden handcuffs. The payments appeared designed to induce the recently released men into signing contracts they'd later regret, and to entice others to sign up, too.
Johnnie Lindsey, a Dallas exoneree, served 26 years for a rape he didn't commit. When he got out in 2008, he says, Glasheen tried to entice him with a car and a check. At the time, Lindsey was one of the longest-serving exonerees. He was due a hefty payout if Glasheen's efforts at the capitol panned out. Lindsey wouldn't sign on the dotted line, but he watched as others did. "It's like taking a hungry dog that hasn't eaten for a week and settin' a steak in front of him and telling him not to eat," he says.
The money continued after the clients signed up. Glasheen's firm paid for Billy James Smith's wedding. "What can you do when you've got a guy who wants to get married and he wants to have a wedding?" Glasheen says. James Woodard, an epileptic wrongfully convicted of murdering his girlfriend, got money to buy his fiancée a car. It was an advance hard to claim as "reasonable," seeing that Woodard's fiancée was Joyce King, a former CBS Radio News anchor and an Innocence Project of Texas board member. King was on Glasheen's payroll, he says, charged with looking after Woodard when the two fell in love. (He quit paying her, he says.)
With their clients sufficiently dependent, Glasheen and his firm kept them coming back to the well for monthly advances. Jaimie Page, a social-work professor formerly at the University of Texas at Arlington, organized the Texas Exoneree Project, which provides post-release assistance. Someone from the firm was always there to monitor the exoneree group meetings she moderated, she says.
"I think the money he was dangling in front of them A) kept them under control, B) helped them, but C) he's in Lubbock," she says, so he couldn't actually help them. "There's no case management,"
Glasheen disagrees, saying his services went beyond advances. He hired a lawyer to manage the client's personal affairs, counsel them, even drive them to the DMV to get their driver's licenses. But Page says the firm's ministrations were suffocating. When she tried to arrange mental-health counseling for exonerees, to address the memories and traumas of prison, she says she met only resistance from Glasheen, who later threatened to sue for tortious interference. He viewed her contributions as intrusions, she says, like she was cutting in on his action.
"He was nervous about the exonerees being organized, and they have organized," Page says. "He said he would not allow his clients to attend the meetings if he didn't have attorneys there."
In April 2009, Blackburn won the posthumous exoneration of Timothy Cole, a black Texas Tech student convicted of raping a white student in 1985. Cole had died in prison in 1999 after suffering an asthma-induced heart attack. He was 38, and his death was just the rallying cry Glasheen and Blackburn needed to convince state legislators that $50,000 a year — although raised from $25,000 in 2007 to match the federal compensation level — was still insufficient to repay an innocent prisoner.
On May 27, 2009, the Timothy Cole Act was signed by Governor Rick Perry after passing almost unanimously in both the House and Senate. On September 1, less than a year after Glasheen dropped his cases against Dallas, the law took effect. Though they hadn't reached the $250,000-per-year goal Glasheen had targeted, the bill had more than tripled the payout Texan exonerees could collect — and guaranteed Glasneen a flood of legal fees.
The exonerees say they did just as much work as Glasheen to push for the bill's passage, making repeated trips to Austin to tell their stories. But the reality is, legislative staffers say, the law would have never picked up the inertia it did if Glasheen hadn't enlisted support, both from lawmakers and the cities that endorsed the bill.
"One of the selling points for the bill was that Glasheen had pending lawsuits in the cities of Irving and Dallas on behalf of a number of exonerees, and he'd made agreements not to sue them for federal civil rights violations if the compensation increase happened," says Senator Rodney Ellis, a Democrat from Houston who co-authored the bill with Senator Bob Duncan.
Exonerees who apply — and agree to not sue — are now entitled to $160,000 for each year spent in prison. Half of that is doled out immediately in a lump sum. The other half is annuitized and paid out on a monthly basis, collecting 5 percent interest each year until the day the recipient dies or commits a felony.
Under the old law, Phillips would have received roughly $1.2 million — $800,000 after taxes. Under the new one, instead of a one-time payment of $1.2 million, Phillips was due more than $2 million, plus an additional $2 million over the rest of his life. If he lived an additional 30 years, that $2 million could become $3 million, all of it tax-free. Before the law's passage, Kris Moore obtained an IRS exemption so the payouts were viewed as personal injury settlements, which generally aren't taxable. In a dramatic meeting with the agency, Glasheen says, their client, James Woodard, suffered an epileptic seizure. His illness hadn't been properly treated in prison, driving the point home to frightening effect: Everyone comes out of prison damaged in some way.
Glasheen says he also added the language about the annuity to the bill himself, basing it on the structured-settlement mold he'd used for years as a personal injury lawyer.
But when it came time to sign on the dotted line, Phillips balked. He says the payout projection he'd received from Glasheen's firm stunned and angered him. "I realized, good Lord, I'm about to get screwed big time!" Phillips says. He wondered why he was getting a bill when Glasheen had yet to file his lawsuit against the city. "I did not hire him to do that," Phillips says. "I hired him for litigation."
Adding insult to injury: Glasheen's initial take was actually bigger than Phillips'.
According to the contract, Glasheen's fee was 25 percent of the total package — including the present value of the $2 million annuity. Under the terms of their deal, Phillips would get a check up front for a little less than a million dollars; the rest would be paid out over his lifetime, provided he didn't suffer an untimely death or catch a felony conviction. The firm, however, calculated that its entire take, more than a million dollars, should come up front. That left Phillips on the hook for fees based in part on money he didn't yet have — and may never see.
It's a quirk of the new law's conditions. While structured settlements often call for legal fees to be paid up front, that money is legally guaranteed. This money isn't. If Phillips died in a traffic accident tomorrow, the state would stop sending annuity checks — but Glasheen would already have his cut of the cash.
"I'm telling myself, 'No friggin' way!'" Phillips says. "It's not going down like that."
Upon receiving his bill, he stopped returning Glasheen's calls. The firm dispatched a flunky to track him down. Steve Steele, Phillips' old boss at the James Group Ministries, says one of them strode past his secretary, sat down in his office and tried to buttonhole him on the wayward client's whereabouts. As Steele, a Harley-riding Vietnam vet, would later recall, he was "barkin' up the wrong tree."
Phillips fired the firm on September 16, 2009, filed for the compensation on his own, and watched the money come in. He also hired Randy Turner and sued Glasheen, citing breach of contract for failing to pursue a civil suit against the city. A couple of other Glasheen clients defected to Turner's camp, too — James Giles and Patrick Waller, who both chafed at the big-dollar sums Glasheen's firm carved from their payouts. The rest paid up and moved on, waiting to see how the judge comes down on the question.
In Phillips' lawsuit, he argues that the deal had always been to file a civil lawsuit against the city. He wasn't about to pay him for lobbying. Besides, hadn't he been down to the legislature, too?
But that's not what the contract says. It allows for a two-pronged recovery for Glasheen — either through a 40-percent take in a civil rights claim or 25 percent of the statutory compensation "for services rendered." To Glasheen, those vague "services" weren't just lobbying. The legislation was passed because of litigation, and the threat of litigation, that Glasheen brought against Dallas and Irving. Those suits inspired those cities to throw their weight behind his campaign to raise the compensation rate, and he claims he spent more than $400,000 preparing all those claims. Phillips is a beneficiary of all that work, he says.
Glasheen also benefited. He represented a dozen clients in the three years leading up to the law change, some of whom collected multimillion-dollar checks from the state. In all, he says, he made $4 million.
Blackburn got his, too. In almost every case, Glasheen split the total proceeds 60/40 with Blackburn. (Phillips' was a rare exception, so Blackburn's name was eventually dropped from his lawsuit. It remains on Giles' and Waller's.) Blackburn's take of the proceeds raised more than a few eyebrows, given his position as the visionary behind the Innocence Project of Texas and its chief counsel. He's been accused by Phillips' attorneys and others of doing little more than funneling exonerees to Glasheen to earn his 40-percent cut, abusing his position within the organization.
Kris Moore, the workhorse behind Glasheen's civil suits, says Blackburn guided his court filings and articulated long-range strategy. "His presence may not have been felt in terms of his name being in pleadings, but he was always there," Moore says.
"It is offensive to me now that when (Blackburn) happened to make a modest fee, and not through the Innocence Project of Texas, and not through referrals of people he helped, but through clients, people are coming after him," Blackburn's attorney, Vince Nowak, says. "Where the hell were these people when Jeff was spending his money and his considerable talent to exonerate these guys?
"Where was Randy Turner ... when Jeff was working on behalf of all wrongfully convicted people? I tell you what, they're here now because Jeff and Kevin made them some money and they can take an hourly fee and they're taking it to come after Jeff and to come after Kevin."
The Innocence Project of Texas defends Blackburn's right to make a living. But others inside the organization see it differently. John Stickels, a UT-Arlington professor who served on the organization's board, left the organization over the fee arrangements. Michelle Moore, a Dallas public defender who works innocent-prisoner cases, split with the Innocence Project of Texas for similar reasons.
Phillips' lawsuit is scheduled for a jury trial in November, but it's not just exonerees who are pursuing legal action against Glasheen. In January, the State Bar of Texas, the member organization for the state's attorneys, sued Glasheen in a Lubbock court, citing professional misconduct. They accused him of drawing up a contract that claimed an interest in an "administrative action" — filing a one-page compensation form — and for lobbying for a contingency fee. They also dinged him for taking cut of an annuity that hadn't been paid.
If even some of what the bar alleges is illegal, it won't be just Glasheen's contract that's in trouble. Other attorneys have taken percentages of exoneree compensation for doing little more than filing paperwork. Clay Graham, an attorney once employed by Glasheen to help his newly released clients, and Anthony Robinson, an exoneree now practicing law, took on the case of Jerry Lee Evans, who served 22 years on a false sex-assault conviction. Graham tells the Observer that Evans' compensation claim was fairly straightforward, and that they advanced him "pocket money." When Evans collected $1.82 million, Graham says, he and Robinson took 10 percent.
It's often not that simple, Glasheen argues. The comptroller has been inconsistent in determining who gets paid and who doesn't, and Glasheen says he's seen clients' compensation forms rejected, requiring Glasheen to compel the Texas Supreme Court to make the state pay.
Getting Phillips to pay may prove trickier. Judge Ken Molberg has yet to rule on a motion filed by Glasheen to freeze Phillips' newfound assets, some of which Phillips already spent buying and restoring a house. At a hearing last year, Molberg said he wasn't sure Glasheen had shown him enough to keep Phillips from spending the money. But he did make a comment that hinted at how he feels about how the case has been characterized.
"These people did do something that increased this man's recovery to a significant extent," Molberg began. "And it's kind of odd to me that that is not recognized and it's all this white-knight stuff over here and all the black hats over here, if you get my drift. Now, whether or not they can ever recover to the extent or whether or not it was excessive or unconscionable is a different question.
"But ... basically the testimony coming to me today is that ... Mr. Glasheen was useless and worthless, and I'm not buying that, because he wasn't."
The judge's is a sentiment not uncommon, especially in the tight-knit community of exonerees. Even among those who are now suing him, their emotions conflict.
"They love Kevin Glasheen," former client James Giles says of his exonerated brethren. "I love him too. But I ain't gonna take no chance that he gonna give me no money if I don't file a lawsuit."
"I thank God for what Kevin and them did," adds James Waller, a former client who isn't currently suing Glasheen. "But like I say, we need to make things right and keep it right."
Steven Phillips sits with his thin, bare legs crossed in the kitchen of a Carrollton house just off the interstate. It's a hot August afternoon. His straw panama is shoved down on his head, and he peers from beneath it through a pair of thick wire-frame eyeglasses that amplify his bright green eyes.
Around him are the kinds of men he knows well — addicted, broken, paroled. He bought this house with the compensation money he got from the state. It serves as a halfway house and spiritual center for men on their second, third, even their fourth chances. In the beginning, instead of paying rent, the men slept on the unfinished floors and restored the place, laying new tile, refinishing the walls, making the place livable again. Phillips liked the metaphor. They restored the house and, while they were at it, they restored that part of them they lost in prison or to drugs.
"I don't know if they can learn anything from me," he says. "I just show up and not be a bad example. There's something to say for showin' up."
He's trying to be an example for Charles, 24, whom he's taken into his home as a son, along with Charles' pregnant girlfriend and child. Charles spent time in juvenile lock-up for aggravated robbery. He's the same age now that Phillips was when he went to prison.
Frank, a stocky guy with a neatly trimmed goatee, is on probation now, facing at least five years in prison — which would be his third trip — if he gets violated.
J.D., a new tenant, has only been out a couple of months after doing a long bid for prison-gang related stabbings. He belonged to the Texas Mafia, and would have beefed with Frank in prison. Now they're on the same softball team.
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As they talk prison life, J.D. mentions that he served his sentence out at Coffield Unit. Phillips snatches his straw hat off of his head and looks at J.D., eyes wide through his eyeglasses.
The men laugh for a moment, and then Phillips grows serious. "We don't hold any of that against you here."
He knows that here, in the company of men whose past lives are a litany of mistakes, no white knights will be found. Or, for that matter, are there bad guys in black hats.