The following editorial was published in the Fort Worth, TX Star-Telegram on January 5, 2009.
The alleged $50 billion Ponzi scheme run by Bernard Madoff, once a well-respected Wall Street investor, has claimed many casualties — individuals as well as large nonprofit institutions.
A Texas organization that has done an incredible job of helping victims of our flawed criminal justice system has fallen victim itself after learning that its major benefactor’s funds had been "managed" by Madoff.
The Innocence Project of Texas, which has exonerated more than 30 wrongly convicted people through DNA testing, received a $450,000 grant last year from the JEHT Foundation of New York to pay for the testing expenses. The foundation announced that because of its losses through Madoff investments it would suspend grants and shut down at the end of this month.
Money already received by the Innocence Project will remain with the organization, which operates programs at Texas Tech University, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Houston and Texas Southern University. But there are many more cases to be investigated and each DNA test costs $4,000 to $5,000.
Innocence Project officials have applied for funding from other nonprofit foundations in the state, including one associated with the State Bar of Texas. By all means the state bar should support the program financially, but as one attorney with the project says, the responsibility of helping to clear these innocent people lies with the state of Texas itself.
Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas at Texas Tech, told the Star-Telegram that the state Legislature could address this problem by spending a small fraction of the $2.3 billion it allocates to operate prisons.
"The prison system is asking the Legislature to give it $500 million more this year for increased salaries to maintain its current level of operations," Blackburn said. "One five-hundredth of that amount — $1 million — would guarantee that the innocence work in this state could go forward."
We agree. That is a small price to pay to free even one innocent person. In Dallas County alone in the past few years, 19 men have been exonerated by DNA testing.
These wrongly convicted cases are a blot on the criminal justice system in this state, a blemish that is not likely to go away anytime soon. These injustices must be corrected, and the state should join in that effort with the dedicated individuals and nonprofit groups that have been working to rectify such despicable errors.
Truth in Justice Editorial Note: Other innocence projects have lost funding -- directly and indirectly -- because of the collapse of the Madoff scheme. Our readers are encouraged to donate to the innocence project(s) that take cases from their state. Find the address for your innocence project(s) at Truth in Justice's list of innocence project contacts.