Steffanie Rivers

*When I first heard about the Innocence Project and the work it does to free the wrongfully convicted I considered this legal advocacy group to be a Godsend.

What better way to teach law students the real life lesson that has become the reality for so many: Justice is not blind and more often than not it can be prejudice and bought for a price.

Although most citizens know that the legal system is only as fair as the people in charge of it, others have come to that realization after the personal misfortune of having been on the wrong side of that legal equation.

I had fleeting thoughts about how fortunate these men were to have their cases chosen from among thousands of potentially wrongfully convicted felons; after all nearly everybody in prison claims to be innocent. But after some investigation it turns out the motives of some Innocence Project attorneys are not as pure as they would have the general populace to believe.

And it leaves me to question whether some of those Innocence Project attorneys are victimizing the innocent all over again. Here’s why: In Texas the Innocence Project chooses its clients based on money. What do I mean? Some states have enacted programs whereby reparations are paid to wrongfully convicted felons as a way to apologize and to help them with emotional and financial recovery (as if that’s possible. See In Texas a wrongfully convicted felon gets $80,000 in restitution through monthly stipends and annuities for every year he spent behind bars and he gets even more cash if he spent that time on death row. It’s the most payout by any state in the country. In the past four years eight men have been exonerated in Texas due to DNA evidence that overturned their sentences for everything from aggravated assault to murder.

One of the men who served 24 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit and recently was released is waiting for his $4 million worth of payments to kick in but before the Innocence Project of Texas agreed to re-investigate his case this victim of the legal system had to sign over 25% of his $4 million payoff. That’s $1 million! Are you with me? Let me be clearer. Every state that operates an Innocence Project has a chief counsel or practicing attorney who is “in charge” of filing the legal documents that reopen the cases in question. In Texas the chief counsel is attorney Jeff Blackburn. Blackburn recently lobbied the Texas legislature to increase payout to exonerees from $50,000 to $80,000 for every year the wrongfully convicted spent in prison.

Soon afterwards the amount was raised. Then Blackburn, who never revealed to state legislators that he was getting “referral fees,” would pick cases where the felons stood to get the most compensation and referred those cases to other attorneys. Referring the cases instead of working them himself was an attempt to distance himself from direct affiliation. Then those other attorneys would contact the wrongly accused, get them to sign documents agreeing to hand over as much as 25% of their future restitution in exchange for the work on their case and a few thousand dollars to help them get a jump start upon their release until their money starts to roll in. Some of the exonerees who agreed to pay the exorbitant fees have come to realize what a bad deal they made.

Now The State Bar of Texas wants to discipline the attorneys involved, but not before Blackburn has collected more than $300,000 in kickbacks because of his“referrals.” Some states operate their Innocence Project programs through law schools, while others have no law school affiliation. And although I want to believe that every Innocence Project in every state doesn’t have one hand on a law book and the other in the victim’s pocket, it’s hard to ignore the higher percentage of overturned convictions in Texas where compensation is the highest, while other states such as Michigan and Washington that have no restitution agreement for their wrongfully convicted, have had less effort put forth to bring justice for all. Restitution payments should not be held hostage by ambulance chasing attorneys who care more about their financial cut than they do about justice. When this happens it proves once again that justice can be bought, and it ain’t cheap.

Steffanie Rivers is a freelance journalist. Send your comments, questions and appearance inquiries to Steffanie at [email protected]