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In the spring of 2000, Amarillo solo practitioner Jeff Blackburn started looking into drug charges lodged against 46 residents of the small Panhandle town of Tulia. theBlackburn, a criminal-defense lawyer with a history of handling civil rights cases, started wondering about the credibility of the lone undercover officer in the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force who conducted the sting in July 1999 that led to charges against the Tulia residents. Blackburn was troubled with the long jail sentences some of the defendants received after going to trial in Swisher County, and also troubled that the 43 defendants who were black comprised 12 percent of Tulia’s African-American population. “I knew from my own experience that it wasn’t that extraordinary, but I also realized that it was extraordinary in the sense that this many people had gotten convicted, had gotten victimized by the same old stuff in Swisher County, very one-sided prosecutions, vary harsh punishment meted out by jurors,” he says. Swisher County District Attorney Terry McEachern refers calls about the Tulia prosecutions to Rod Hobson, a criminal-defense attorney in Lubbock who became a special prosecutor for the Tulia cases in March. Hobson says he can’t speak about the operations of the task force. But the efforts of Blackburn and others – he was a part of a huge pro bono legal team of lawyers from Texas, Washington, D.C., and New York City – may lead to exoneration for 38 of the Tulia defendants who were convicted or pleaded to felony drug charges. In April, visiting Judge Ron Chapman of Dallas, who presided over a habeas corpus hearing in Swisher County, said the charges against the Tulia defendants should be dismissed. Chapman made the recommendation at a hearing where the prosecution and the defense agreed to stipulate that the undercover officer was not credible. [ See "Justice in a Small Town," Texas Lawyer, April 7, 2003, page 1.] But with 14 of the defendants still in prison as they await action by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill on June 2 that will allow them out of jail on bond this month while the CCA decides whether to vacate the earlier convictions and order new trials. Perry also asked the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to begin a review of the convictions and recommend if the Tulia defendants should receive some form of clemency. The Texas Office of the Attorney General and the U.S. Department of Justice also are investigating. For his efforts, Blackburn will receive the State Bar of Texas’ Frank J. Scurlock Award, which recognizes an individual for providing legal services to indigents. Blackburn was nominated for the Scurlock Award by William Harrell, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. Harrell says Blackburn made personal and professional sacrifices to handle the Tulia cases. “He set aside his normal practice. He has been the subject of hostility from the local market to the courthouse. People in West Texas do not like the attention this has brought to them,” Harrell says. The awards subcommittee of the State Bar’s Legal Services to the Poor in Civil Matters Committee reviews the nominations and recommends the winners to the full committee, says Kim-berly Schmitt, public information director for the State Bar. Pamela Brown, chairwoman of the legal services to the poor committee, says the group was impressed that Blackburn took on an unpopular cause and devoted so much of his time and money to the work. “It’s pro bono representation at its best – really zealous advocacy for potentially unpopular clients,” says Brown, director of the Bi-national Project on Family Violence at Texas Rural Legal Aid. “I looked at these cases and saw it as a real opportunity for me personally to get involved and make a difference in a way that I’ve tried to get involved with up here [in the Panhandle] for a long time,” Blackburn says. He says his work won’t end until all the Tulia defendants are pardoned. He also says he will continue to seek reforms, such as adding a public defender’s office in Texas and disbanding drug task forces. “This thing has kind of changed my life in that it has given me a clearer set of tangible political goals to work for, and I’m going to keep working that forever, or until we change these things in Texas,” he says. Blackburn, 45, says he has gained as much, on a personal level, from the Tulia cases as the defendants benefited from his work. He had just started working on the cases when his wife committed suicide in April 2000. The Tulia cases became his life raft. “It really saved my life because I had such a great chance to sink into a total black hole of despair. Tulia for me was the light at the end of the tunnel,” says Blackburn, who lives in Amarillo with Sam, his 16-year-old son from an earlier marriage. Blackburn has been practicing in Amarillo, his hometown, since 1983. He is a graduate of the University of Alabama and the University of Houston Law Center. After seven of the Tulia defendants went to trial in late 1999 and early 2000, and received sentences of as much as 99 years in prison, other defendants pleaded to charges. Ultimately, 38 of the 46 Tulia residents charged in the sting either went to trial and were convicted or pleaded to felony charges, according to information from Blackburn’s office. Efforts by Blackburn and others led to dismissal of charges against two defendants. Blackburn says he and a number of other lawyers in the Panhandle formed the Tulia Legal Defense Project. Lawyers from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund became involved in September 2001, along with lawyers from Washington, D.C.’s Wilmer Cutler & Pickering and Hogan & Hartson. Blackburn says he spent $71,100 of his own money, and about a quarter of his time over the past three years, working on the Tulia cases. While the Washington lawyers say their firms spent more than $1 million in time and expenses on the project, four lawyers involved in the defense say Blackburn was key. “Jeff is an incredibly savvy litigator and he had been committed to these cases from the moment he first heard of them,” says Vanita Gupta, a staff attorney for the LDF. “Jeff is a hero,” says Randy Credico, executive director of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice Inc., who handled public relations and political aspects of the Tulia defense. Chris Hoffman, a partner in Amarillo’s Hoffman, Sheffield, Sauseda & Hoffman who worked on the Tulia defense, says Blackburn risked his livelihood. “He went way out on a limb for these clients, both personally and financially,” Hoffman says. “He really made this case his Holy Grail.”

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