Friday, December 25, 2009

David Grann's article on Todd Willingham was the "most powerful essay" of 2009

David Brooks of the New York Times says that David Grann's article on Todd Willingham was the "most powerful essay" he read all year and worthy of a Sidney Award. Read his entire article "The Sidney Awards".
Every year, I give out Sidney Awards to the best magazine essays of the year. In an age of zipless, electronic media, the idea is to celebrate (and provide online links to) long-form articles that have narrative drive and social impact.
The most powerful essay I read this year was David Grann’s “Trial by Fire” in The New Yorker. Grann investigated the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for murdering his three children by setting their house on fire.

In the first part of the essay, Grann lays out the evidence that led to Willingham’s conviction: the marks on the floor and walls that suggested that a fire accelerant had been splashed around; the distinct smoke patterns suggesting arson; the fact that Willingham was able to flee the house barefoot without burning his feet.

Then, in the rest of the essay, Grann raises grave doubts about that evidence. He tells the story of a few people who looked into the matter, found a miscarriage of justice and then had their arguments ignored as Willingham was put to death. Grann painstakingly describes how bogus science may have swayed the system to kill an innocent man, but at the core of the piece there are the complex relationships that grew up around a man convicted of burning his children. If you can still support the death penalty after reading this piece, you have stronger convictions than I do.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Book: Angel of Death Row: My Life as a Death Penalty Defense Lawyer (Hardcover)

Angel of Death Row by Andrea Lyon is going to become available in January of 2010. It is a collection of stories that complete her memoirs on a life of service as a death penalty trial attorney. While her book is not meant to be an argumentative piece for or against the death penalty, it is clear that Ms. Lyon, through her commitment to her clients and in creating The Center for Justice in Capital Cases (at DePaul University in Chicago), is an agent of change in this country for death penalty reform. There is a video interview with Andrea Lyon on Youtube.

Book Description

Nineteen times, death penalty defense lawyer Andrea D. Lyon has represented a client found guilty of capital murder. Nineteen times, she has argued for that individual’s life to be spared. Nineteen times, she has succeeded.

Dubbed the “Angel of Death Row” by the Chicago Tribune, Lyon was the first woman to serve as lead attorney in a death penalty case. Throughout her career, she has defended those accused of heinous acts and argued that, no matter their guilt or innocence, they deserved a change at redemption.

Now, for the first time, Lyon shares her story, from her early work as a Legal Aid attorney to her founding of the Center for Justice in Capital Cases. Full of courtroom drama, tragedy, and redemption, Angel of Death Row is a remarkable inside look at what drives Lyon to defend those who seem indefensible—and to win.

There was Annette who was suspected of murdering her own daughter. There was Patrick, the convicted murderer who thirsted for knowledge and shared his love of books with Lyon when she visited him in jail. There was Lonnie, whose mental illness made him nearly impossible to save until the daughter who remembered his better self spoke on his behalf. There was Deirdre, who shared Lyon’s cautious optimism that her wrongful conviction would finally be overturned, allowing her to see her grandchildren born while she was in prison. And there was Madison Hobley, the man whose name made international headlines when he was wrongfully charged with the murder of his family and sentenced to death.

These clients trusted Lyon with their stories—and their lives. Driven by an overwhelming sense of justice, fairness, and morality, she fought for them in the courtroom and in the raucous streets, staying by their sides as they struggled through real tragedy and triumphed in startling ways. Angel of Death Row is the compelling memoir of Lyon’s unusual journey and groundbreaking career.

Andrea Lyon's account of her groundbreaking career amounts to a primer on the criminal justice system and the death penalty in particular. What it reveals is often horrifying, but Andrea's writing is so infused with empathy and humor that the reader comes away both wiser to the ways of injustice and inspired by the difference one person can make. The stories of her life and her cases expose flawed humanity on all sides, as well as breathtaking largeness of heart. And make no mistake, Andrea's compassion for the victims of crime is no less than her compassion for the defendants. Angel of Death Row is timely, important, and a page-turner to the end. —Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Exonerees, lawyers fees and innocence compensation: A personal perspective on an ugly dispute

Last week an article about an exoneree suing his attorneys was printed in several papers. At the time I knew that something was not right, that the whole story was not being printed but I had not caught up with being out of town and responded yet.

I know Jeff Blackburn, with the Innocence Project of Texas, and know him to be a very hard-working, extremely dedicated attorney. If you know me at all, you know I rarely praise attorneys as most of them are not worthy of any, but Jeff is one of the exceptions. I have known him since the '70's and he is one of the people wanting to figure out how to have Todd Willingham posthumouslyalso exonerated. Jeff spoke at our annual march in Texas this year. You can watch his speech online.

He was also the attorney for the Tulia defendants who were so royally screwed until he stepped in and took their cases and fought the powers in Tulia. Google Tulia or rent the movie "American Violet" and see for yourself, if you are not familiar with this case.

Anyhow, I wanted to share with you a post that is on the great blog, "Grits for Breakfast" that explains what I wasn't able to put into words. Heaven knows that with more attorneys like Jeff, our wrongly convicted prisoners would never have been wrongly convicted!

Gloria Rubac

I'm going to speak out of school a bit to offer a personal perspective on a dispute covered today in the Dallas News involving my former employers. I've not spoken to anyone involved about the lawsuit described below. I claim no direct line to the truth on this and only offer my own impressions.

However, I've got mixed feelings about today's media coverage over a fee dispute between one of Texas' DNA exonerees, his attorney, and the legal director of the Innocence Project of Texas. This spring I worked worked for/with both lawyers being sued - Kevin Glasheen and Jeff Blackburn - and my history with Blackburn goes back to working with him on the Tulia cases around the turn of the century. What's more, I know all of the exonerees and attorneys who are quoted in the story.. If you know nothing besides what you read in Jennifer Emily's Dallas News story ("Innocence Project counsel criticized for profiting on exonerees"), it sounds pretty bad. Here's her lede:
Jeff Blackburn has helped spring dozens of Texans from prison after they spent time behind bars for crimes they did not commit.

But even as he's carried on the public fight to free the wrongly convicted as chief counsel for Innocence Project of Texas, he's been privately profiting off of some of the exonerated by claiming a portion of the state restitution paid to them.

Accepting fees from exonerees for services not directly connected to the nonprofit Texas Innocence Project is not illegal. But at least one public watchdog group says it appears improper, and a state legislator says he may file a bill to prohibit such profiteering.
At root, this critique is based on a sentiment, most directly expressed by Rep. Rafael Anchia, that "They should be helping the exonerees on a pro bono basis." But what other clients do attorneys represent without compensation? In this case, thanks to their lawyers, clients got aggressive representation across multiple fronts that resulted in changes to state law and opened the door for multi-million dollar settlements of their federal civil rights claims. That's no small thing. Texas could, as a state, change the way we compensate lawyers in civil court, but that's a much larger question.

The whiff of scandal promoted in the story is rooted in a fallacy the writer fails to rebut: The idea that exonerees could have just filed "
a one-page document the guy could fill out himself." The fact is that Texas already had a compensation statute when Steven Phillips got out of prison, but at a much lower compensation rate. All of the fellows who hired Glasheen (some of whom, but not Phillips, for which Blackburn receives a referral fee) could have filed that same one-page document already and received compensation at a lower rate. They each had a choice under the law: Sue or accept compensation. Some did accept the compensation and didn't pay lawyers anything. Bully for them. That was their decision, but they'll receive less money overall than Mr. Philips. The only ones on the hook for attorneys fees are the ones who made a conscious choice that the previous compensation package was not enough.

Under the law for exonerees who reject the state compensation package, their other option for compensation was and is to hire a lawyer and sue.
These are straight-up, contingency style Sec. 1983 federal civil rights suits which are very expensive to litigate and perhaps even more difficult to win - plaintiffs must not just prove harm but a "pattern and practice" of abuse. Those lawsuits were settled this spring in light of Texas' new compensation bill and a portion of the bill's success may be attributed directly to leverage from Glasheen's litigation - particularly among Dallas-area reps like Anchia whose local governments could otherwise be on the hook for big civil judgments. If the bill had failed, the litigation would have gone forward, including Mr. Phillips', of that I have little doubt.

Bottom line: these exonerees are in a unique position because of a) choices they made and b) the point in history they made them. Nobody going forward will find themselves similarly situated because the law has changed.

The compensation they'll receive under the new bill, even after paying their lawyers, will be much more than exonerees would have gotten otherwise. What's more, the new bill establishes an annuity that will pay them for the rest of their lives. Nobody's hurting for money here.

It should also be said I'm 100% sure the compensation bill would not have passed this year without Kevin Glasheen and Jeff Blackburn. While Blackburn's efforts were more high-profile, Glasheen, a Republican attorney out of Lubbock, brought connections and resources to the table that I'm absolutely certain pushed the bill over the top, especially during a session when money was tight and most other innocence legislation died. He was in Austin every week lobbying with terrific success, but his incentive to do so was the fee agreement. Should he, would he, would anyone expect him to do so just out of the goodness of his heart? He didn't take these cases pro bono; this is how the man earns his living.

Ditto for Blackburn, who faced similar criticism after the Tulia cases were settled. But how can he handle expensive, longshot innocence cases if he must earn his living hustling for DWI clients in Amarillo? I've watched Blackburn put tens of thousands in legal expenses on his own credit cards in possible-innocence cases, sometimes without getting it back. If we're going to blame Jeff when makes money, he should also get credit for putting in a lot more of his own money and pro bono time to help innocent clients post-conviction than most attorneys I know.

Another thing not mentioned in the story: Glasheen gave significant monetary advances to exonerees to help them pay bills while the litigation and legislation was pending - in some cases fairly significant amounts. Nobody had any complaints when they approached him seeking cash, one notices, and if the bill and litigation both failed, he'd be out that money. I'm just sayin'.

So while I understand why Phillips and perhaps others chafe at the notion, personally I don't begrudge the attorneys involved being paid. Professional-level services are not free, and otherwise the work wouldn't get done.

At the end of the day, Blackburn, Glasheen, and these exonerees together along with Anchia, Rodney Ellis, Robert Duncan and others at the Lege achieved something amazing with the passage of this bill. Exonerees in the past were compensated much less, and in a couple of instances wound up destitute and homeless a few short years after getting the money. Even after attorneys fees, these guys will get more than they otherwise would have, including a lifetime annuity.
The fight for better statutory compensation - fought by the exonerees through their own efforts and their attorneys - both earned more for them and paved the way for improved justice for others in the future.. Henceforth, it's true: Nobody need hire an attorney and exonerees can just file that one-page document. But that's a fight recently won, not a fait accompli that would have happened without these attorneys' effort.

Political and legal fights over public policy are messy beasts and seldom free from self-interest. This one was successful, so it's a shame to see victors feuding over the spoils. I'm sad that it's happening and wish everyone involved the best.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

‎Holiday Card Signing Party for Death-Row Inmates‎

Wednesday, December 3 at 7PM
At UT in Parlin, Room 302

Death Row is a horrible place. Prisoners are kept in their cells 23
hours of the day without group recreation, education programs, or
adequate food. This holiday season, the Campaign to End the Death
Penalty is trying to bring a little bit of joy to an otherwise bleak
and miserable place. Join us as we send holiday cards to death row
inmates and their families in an attempt to remind them that we are
fighting on the outside to save their lives, and we will not rest
until we have abolition!

CEDP members will be bringing some light refreshments. Feel free to bring treats to share.