Jeff Blackburn: Tulia Defender
The National Law Journal
In 1999, nearly half of the black adult population of Tulia, in the Texas Panhandle, was arrested for dealing in cocaine, based on the word of an undercover police officer with a questionable past.
National attention has put a spotlight on the dubious veracity of those 46 arrests in a town of 5,000, but it didn't stop almost all of the people from going to jail.
In the last two years, Jeff Blackburn, a solo practitioner in Amarillo, Texas, has been working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense Fund and a handful of other lawyers to get some of the accused off and others, already convicted, out of jail. It's taken more than 2,000 hours and about $39,000 of his own money.
The informant, Tom Coleman, worked for the federally funded Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force. He spent 18 months in Tulia.
He was ordered suspended from law enforcement by the state because his previous employers in Cochran County charged him with misconduct involving theft and abuse. But he continued to work in Tulia. Coleman's accusations were based entirely on his own testimony, with no drugs, money or other corroboration. State and federal authorities are investigating the Tulia arrests.
Will Harrell, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said that Blackburn's exoneration of defendants Tanya White and Zuri Bossett helped generate public attention and led to legislative reform.
"Jeff was instrumental in crafting the so-called Tulia bills from the beginning," said Harrell. "One of these bills is now the first law of its kind in the nation. It prohibits criminal convictions on the uncorroborated work of a confidential informant. Since its passage, over 180 cases in Texas have been dismissed."
Vanita Gupta, assistant counsel at the Legal Defense Fund, also has words of praise for Blackburn. "He is a very savvy litigator," Gupta said.
Blackburn's practice is mostly criminal and civil rights work. He got involved when a court-appointed lawyer for the Tulia defendants came to him for help.
"After we saw the pattern with this crooked cop and the ease with which his word was taken, then it was like, I have to do something," Blackburn said.
He began working with other lawyers, including Christopher Hoffman and Jack Swindell, paralegal Margaret Barras and secretary Virginia Cave on a five-year plan to try to get all of the convictions overturned.
CIVIL SUIT SETTLES
Their first case was a civil suit on behalf of Billy Wafer, whose criminal case was dismissed after employee time sheets showed that he was at work when he was supposedly selling drugs. It settled for about $25,000 in mid-2000. The lawyers obtained information through discovery, particularly about the undercover officer, that helped them in the cases of White and Bossett.
"We got information from the sheriff about how he was hired and supervised," Blackburn said. "The state had been covering this up, but there were other cases where he had made up accusations. We didn't know that until we got into the civil case and used the discovery process."
A cashed check showed that White was in Oklahoma City, where she was living, at the time Coleman said she sold him drugs. When he approached the district attorney and told him about their evidence, the DA dismissed the case in April 2002. Bossett's case was dismissed a week before trial in July.
Meanwhile the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice in New York got the Legal Defense Fund involved. It began filing habeas petitions for those convicted. The fund and Blackburn teamed up, with Blackburn serving as local counsel. The fund has also brought in 16 law firms to help, including Washington, D.C.'s Hogan & Hartson.
Blackburn is working with the fund on habeas petitions for convicted defendants Jason Williams and Freddie Brookins. He said he spends about two hours a day on the Tulia cases, which has cut into his paying case load.
He's able to do it financially because he keeps his expenses down: "I live and work in the same building. We don't have super high overhead."
He also credits his support staff. "The people that work for me, put in their time free on nights and weekends. It's been a juggling project."
Blackburn said the top priority is getting out the 13 people in prison. He also hopes to get convictions overturned that didn't lead to prison time.
Blackburn said his motivation came from his experience in Alabama, where he was inspired by the civil rights movement. Civil rights activists encouraged him to become a lawyer and work in his hometown, which is Amarillo. He's been practicing there since 1983.
His wife's death last year has meant that the cases have given him a new focus.
"This is the most life-affirming thing I could have done," he said. "It has been a huge gift. How many times does a lawyer, especially a criminal defense lawyer, get a chance to do a big thing that has a such a clear line drawn? In its own way, it's helped to bring back some beauty in my life."