Innocence Project Founder Frees the Wrongly Convicted

Jeff Blackburn of the Innocence Project of Texas talks about his efforts to free the wrongly imprisoned; short traffic lights and more in the Outer Limits.

by / April 27, 2008

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

proving it's politically valuable for an elected official to open the books and let the public look at whether people have been wrongfully convicted. The overwhelming majority of district attorneys in Texas are inclined to view the Innocence Project of Texas as their enemy rather than as their friend.

We are a homegrown, Texas entity. The people in my project live in this state. We believe in Texas. We believe in the ability of Texas to do better, to reform the system, and we're here to stay. We're not well financed. We scrape for every dime we get, and most of that money so far has been spent on paying for DNA tests. And we're going to keep doing it.


Outer Limits: Where Science and Technology Meet
Advertising Adventures
The suits on Madison Avenue are always seeking creative ways to pitch products to consumers. Cyber-space offers advertisers fertile fields to sow the seeds of product awareness and brand loyalty. Now a Mesquite, Texas, company is positioning itself as the frontrunner in a race to deliver a new breed of online advertising.

Id Software is launching an online, multiplayer game called Quake Live, pioneering one of the first large-scale applications of in-game advertising.

The company already changed the world in 1992, when it released Wolfenstein 3D, a game credited for launching the era of the first-person shooter - a game in which the player views the action through the eyes of the computer character. Id Software then created other popular game series, including Doom and Quake, each of which has sold millions of copies.

In-game advertising has long been considered a viable strategy but so far, has been applied only sporadically. According to the Dallas Business Journal, Id Software will release Quake Live for free with revenue coming from in-game advertisers instead of gamers.

Heart Beats
Millions of Americans suffer from cardiac arrhythmia, or abnormal heartbeat. Severity ranges from mild to life-threatening. At St. David's Medical Center in Austin, doctors are testing a new, less invasive treatment for arterial fibrillation, a type of arrhythmia in which the upper chambers of the heart don't beat efficiently.

Arterial fibrillation often leads to pooling of blood in the heart, which eventually leads to blood clot formation and puts the sufferer at great risk of stroke.

The new procedure, endoscopic catheter ablation, involves "an investigational, endoscopically guided laser catheter that allows for minimally invasive treatment of heart rhythm disorders that can result in a stroke," according to a hospital news release.

According to St. David's, the doctors run a catheter through a patient's leg to the heart. The catheter has an endoscopic video camera and a laser emitter. Once the trouble spot is located, doctors can use the laser to remove the tissue causing the arrhythmia.

Gas Up on Glycerin
You probably use or consume glycerin daily without realizing it. Glycerin is found in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and foodstuffs, and generally serves as a thickening agent for sweeteners, cough syrup and toothpaste. Now, researchers at Rice University in Houston have found another use for the uber-ingredient - creating biodiesel.

According to the university, biodiesel production creates waste glycerin as a byproduct. Ramon Gonzalez, assistant professor of chemical engineering, said his research team found that treating waste glycerin with a strain of E. coli produces ethanol, another sought-after biofuel.

This method of producing ethanol costs 40 percent less than the traditional technique of processing corn. With increased biodiesel demand, producers are find they're oversupplied with glycerin, can't sell it and must pay to dispose of it. Gonzalez's findings could turn out to be both environmentally friendly and profitable.

One pound of glycerin is produced for every 10 pounds

of biodiesel, Gonzalez said in a university news release.


Motorists See Red
Some Texas motorists think they're seeing too much red and not enough yellow. According to several reports, some cities are believed to be intentionally shortening the amount of time traffic signals show yellow lights. The result is more motorists getting caught on camera running red lights. And more traffic tickets mean higher revenues for the cities., an online journal covering the "politics of driving," reports traffic signals in Houston, Dallas and Richland Hills may have been reprogrammed to reduce the amount of time yellow lights are displayed. The journal cites a 2005 study from the Texas Transportation Institute that found reducing a yellow signal's display time by one second at a red light camera-equipped intersection, would increase the number of traffic tickets by 110 percent.

A Houston news station's independent study found some yellow traffic signals in 40 mph-plus zones lasted 3.6 seconds, which according to the Texas Department of Transportation, is too short - though still within the legal duration of three to six seconds. However, the news station reported that almost all intersections with red light cameras maintained the same yellow light duration prior to the cameras. And in nearby Sugar Land, many intersections with red light cameras now have longer yellow lights.


Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.