In 2005, attorney Jeff Blackburn founded the Innocence Project of Texas (IPOT), an organization dedicated to re-evaluating the cases of convicted felons who claim their innocence. Operating primarily in Dallas County and relying on modern DNA testing and the support of the district attorney, the project has already freed 15 wrongly convicted and imprisoned people. Blackburn spoke to Texas Technology about his organization.
What does IPOT do?
There's no greater example of what science can do for the law while illustrating how backward our decision-making system is than what we're doing in Dallas with DNA testing. DNA has completely revolutionized an attitude that people have generally had toward the [criminal justice] system.
Twenty years ago, when I started practicing law as a criminal defense and civil rights lawyer, if you said innocent people were convicted routinely in Texas courts, you were either a communist, a nut or both. Now everybody knows that's the case. The question is how many, how deep is the problem and what's causing this?
How do you determine what cases to review?
This is really the hardest choice we ever have to make. The fact is there are a lot of cases we believe involve innocent men and women, but would require hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of work and serious expenditures to overturn. The result is, right now, we have a big focus on DNA cases because we believe the more exonerations we can get, the greater the impact will be on the public at large and the people in the criminal justice system. The greater the impact we have on those players in the system, the more likely we can begin to get successful results on non-DNA innocence cases.
There's still extreme institutional resistance in Texas to the very idea that a conviction ought to be reviewed and re-examined. The work we're doing in DNA cases - especially in Dallas and now with the bad crime lab work that was done in Harris County, where we're also active - is beginning to prove cases generally need to be re-examined.
What does it take to initiate a case review?
The first step is that an inmate has to want it pretty badly. They have to write to us and seek review of their conviction. If it's a DNA case, the next big question is, was a sample of evidence preserved by the government? A lot of people don't realize the standing practice of most district attorneys' offices is to immediately destroy samples that are taken. For 20 years or longer, the practice in Texas has been to get rid of samples immediately after the conviction occurs. Only in Dallas was there ever an effort to systematically preserve DNA samples. That's why only in Dallas are we getting the number of DNA exonerations we're getting.
As far as DNA evidence is concerned, what's the reality versus what TV shows like CSI portray?
The reality is there is a huge disparity among people who can test DNA. Some people who do DNA testing are no good at it, and some people are really good at it. Like any other science, there is a lot of art involved. We believe, for example, the [Texas] Department of Public Safety (DPS) is using relatively outdated technology. They can't come close to what a private lab can do. We've worked with both, and I think I can give you a pretty solid judgment. I don't think that's for want of trying by the DPS, but they don't have the resources, equipment or personnel to do the job that a private lab can.
What are some challenges your organization has dealt with?
I think Craig Watkins, the Dallas County district attorney, is