In the summer of 1999, police in the tiny town of Tulia carried out one of the largest drug stings in West Texas history. Nearly 50 people were arrested, almost all of them Black, and several were quickly sentenced to life in prison. “Tulia’s Streets Cleared of Garbage,” the local newspaper declared.
Convictions in the remaining cases seemed all but certain, even though they were riddled with inconsistencies. None of the defendants had drugs on them when they were arrested and the allegations against them hinged on the often-contradictory testimony of a single undercover police officer. So in a last-ditch effort, one of the defendants’ lawyers asked for help from a prominent young attorney in Amarillo named Jeff Blackburn.
Over the next four years, Blackburn exposed one of the country’s most celebrated drug busts as a sham. Together with a team of lawyers and activists, he helped prove that the undercover officer was a serial liar. He secured early releases for dozens of the defendants and even convinced then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry to pardon them.
Blackburn’s work in Tulia helped set the stage for more than a decade of reforms to Texas’ criminal justice system — many of which are still considered the most transformational in the country. As founder of the Innocence Project of Texas, he helped exonerate dozens more people and, in the process, convinced lawmakers to do improve evidence requirements in criminal cases and increase compensation for the wrongfully convicted.
On Tuesday, the man once called the “trouble-makingest lawyer in West Texas” died of kidney cancer at age 65. In a series of recent interviews with the Houston Chronicle, Blackburn reflected on the changes that he helped bring about and insisted that the work was bigger than any one person.
“I really dislike the notion of people going, ‘Here was this extraordinary guy or person, and that’s how things happened,’” he said from his home near Taos, New Mexico, where he lived out his final days with friends and family. “I’m an ordinary lawyer.”
Any other conclusion, Blackburn said, is “essentially discouraging regular people to take up the cause.”
Blackburn went on to found the Innocence Project of Texas, helped get the Timothy Cole Act and Timothy Cole Innocence Commission passed, pushed for reforms on the use of confidential informants, and more. I blogged about the Tulia stuff here, and I think the original Texas Observer story about it is here. The Chron’s obit for him is long and richly detailed, so go read it. It’s also a reminder that a lot of work on this subject remains – among other things, it’s still easy for corrupt cops who get fired at one law enforcement agency to get hired by another, a key aspect to the Tulia story – and the bipartisan consensus on various forms of criminal justice reform has largely been broken. But that work is as urgent as ever, and it’s not going to do itself. Read about Jeff Blackburn and remember his legacy.