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The Uneasy Trust Between Exonerated Inmates And Their Attorneys

The use of DNA evidence to exonerate people wrongfully convicted of crimes — and in some cases, free them after decades in prison — is verging on becoming commonplace. It's one reason several states have ceased or slowed down their use of capital punishment. But for some exonerees, the large compensation payment they're often owed brings another clash, with their attorneys.

A recent article by The Dallas Observer looks at the case of Steven Phillips, freed in 2007 after spending more than 24 years behind bars for a string of sexual assaults he didn't commit.

Phillips had been helped by the Innocence Project, which convinced authorities in Dallas to use a DNA test to double-check Phillips' conviction. He was soon exonerated, and he eventually turned to personal-injury attorney Kevin Glasheen to help him sue the city of Dallas.

Glasheen had previously represented Billy James Smith, another exoneree who had already filed a lawsuit accusing the Dallas Police Department of malicious prosecution and violating his civil rights.

But Phillips' lawsuit never materialized. And in just a few years, Phillips would file suit not against Dallas but against both Glasheen and Innocence Project of Texas lead attorney Jeff Blackburn.

At issue is the question of who deserves a cut of the millions of dollars exonerated former inmates are paid when they're exonerated. Under a 2009 Texas law called the Timothy Cole Act, the state must pay wrongfully convicted prisoners $80,000 for every year they were in prison.

Glasheen and Blackburn were reportedly two of the legislation's biggest supporters.

Further complicating matters is the fact that in most wrongful conviction lawsuits Glasheen filed for exonerated prisoners, he often split his fee — a cut of the award money — with Blackburn at a percentage of 60/40, according to the Observer.

Phillips eventually removed Blackburn's name from his lawsuit. But he's still fighting Glasheen over the attorney's $1 million in fees — an amount derived from the $4 million settlement Phillips reached with the state.

This is a complicated story, and one the Observerhas been following all summer. The New York Times has also reported on it.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.