Sunday, May 31, 2015

Texas Innocence Project Founder Quits, Accuses Colleagues Of Selling Out

The following article was posted by the San Antonio (Texas) Current by HernĂ¡n Rozemberg on Wed, May 27, 2015.

He's not about the bling.

But as he sees it, that's all his colleagues have become about.

So he's vowing to continue fighting the good fight ... on his own.

Texas defense lawyer Jeff Blackburn has parted ways with the high-profile organization he founded a decade ago, dedicated to seeking the exoneration of people believed to be wrongly sent to death row.

But Blackburn isn't stepping away from the Innocence Project of Texas because he's changing his mission. Actually, he blasted his colleagues currently leading the group of not having enough backbone to stand up to interests corrupting that mission.

The project is affiliated with the nationally known Innocence Project, headquartered in New York City. It is best known for winning the freedom of many death row prisoners for crimes they long had decried of not having committed.

But the national organization has strayed away from its core mission, lured away by big money and corporate interests, said Blackburn, who's based in Amarillo.

And that's why he had to walk away.

In his resignation letter sent to the board of directors of the Innocence Project of Texas, Blackburn said that the national outfit "went from being a small nonprofit to an organization with a multi-million dollar budget. As its size grew, so did its appetite for money and its need to control the reform movement. What was once a movement has now become a business."

Blackburn didn't accuse his Texas brethren of directly being part of that negative change, but he concluded he could no longer join hands with them due to their refusal to break off from NYC.

"They can keep their $100,000 'VIP' tables at galas, their friends from Goldman Sachs, and their need front control," he wrote in his resignation letter. "It is not for me."

Perhaps not for him, but the rest of Texas group doesn't have an issue with it.

They didn't get into details as to how they see things differently, but in their own statement, board members made it clear they're not going anywhere.

"Our board does not agree with the complaints Jeff made in his resignation letter concerning the Innocence Project," they wrote on the group's website.

"The Innocence Project of Texas will continue the important work to free the wrongfully convicted and reform the Texas criminal justice system and looks forward to continue its fruitful relationship with the Innocence Project and the Innocence Network."

Blackburn may be based in a small Texas panhandle city, but he has certainly made a name for himself much farther and wide across the region and the nation.

A lawyer for more than three decades, he has been involved for many years in trying to exonerate wrongly-convicted death row felons.

His best-known case stems from a drug bust in Tulia, Texas. During a four-year period in the early 2000s, Blackburn obtained full pardons and civil damages for 38 people involved in the case.

The State Bar of Texas named him "Criminal Defense Lawyer of the Year" in 2003. He also teaches law at Texas Tech University.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The FBI’s flawed justice

By Washington Post Editorial Board May 8

THE STUNNING admission by federal law enforcement officials of flawed testimony by forensic experts in hundreds of criminal cases has focused attention on the dubious use of hair analysis. Add this to a list of factors that has played a role in securing the conviction of people who later proved their innocence, including mistaken eyewitness identifications, bad informants and police or prosecutorial misconduct. Forensic technologies must be reassessed, but other parts of the system also need scrutiny if the chances of wrongful convictions are to be reduced.

The Justice Department and FBI, as The Post’s Spencer S. Hsu reported, have acknowledged widespread instances of scientifically indefensible testimony involving microscopic hair comparison by members of an elite FBI forensic unit. A review of cases over two decades before 2000 concluded that nearly every examiner — 26 of 28 — gave flawed testimony in ways that favored the prosecution. Of the cases, 32 defendants were sentenced to death. Fourteen of those have been executed or have died in prison.

The FBI errors do not necessarily mean defendants were innocent. But the confirmation of long-held suspicions about hair analysis, the inability of courts to keep junk science out of courtrooms (and hair analysis is not the only suspect technique) and the questionable reliability of other evidence provide reason to worry about how many innocent people are being convicted.

Consider, for example, the three defendants from the Washington area — Kirk L. Odom, Santae A. Tribble and Donald E. Gates — whose exonerations in separate cases were pivotal in prompting the hair analysis review. Examiners had testified in each case that hair found at the crime scenes matched that of the suspects, analysis later undermined by DNA results that exonerated the three men.

In each case, improper forensics combined with other failings to produce wrongful convictions. Mr. Odom, who spent 22½ years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit, was mistakenly identified by the victim after a questionable police lineup. For the other two, testimony from police informants with something to gain was a factor. Mr. Tribble spent 27 years and 10 months in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Mr. Gates spent 28 years for a rape and murder he didn’t commit. In other cases, confessions came from susceptible people, or information that would have been helpful to the defense was withheld by the government.

With the exception of the rare bad apple, police and prosecutors don’t set out to convict the wrong person, but even the most well-meaning people can be affected by contextual or cognitive bias, particularly in a system with crushing caseloads and intense pressure. Better protections are needed. Steps in the right direction are improvements by D.C. police in procedures for eyewitness identification and the creation of a conviction integrity unit by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District.

But more needs to be done, including, as we’ve argued before, requiring the prosecution to share information with the defense more thoroughly and consistently. We hope the Justice Department undertakes an analysis not only of the breakdown in hair forensics but also of other vulnerabilities in the system.