Thursday, October 19, 2006

Tulia attorney: Innocence Projects need to consider civil implications of cases

The lead counsel on behalf of defendants in the infamous Tulia drug sting said today that currently fashionable "innocence projects" should work more closely with civil rights attorneys so that strategies used to win release from prison for innocent clients don't preclude later civil claims.

Jeff Blackburn, who runs an innocence project at Texas Tech law school in Lubbock, said that criminal defense attorneys don't typically understand federal 1983 law or the constitutional issues surrounding civil litigation or civil rights claims.

Speaking at a seminar sponsored by the National Lawyers Guild in Austin on the subject of police misconduct litigation, Blackburn said such attorney specialization was harming clients' interests.

He described a case where defendant's attorneys, in their appellate briefs, laid the whole fault for the defendant's wrongful conviction at the feet of the prosecutors. Unfortunately for their client, prosecutors have nearly complete immunity, so after he was found innocent the poor fellow couldn't pursue civil damages. Blackburn said there was plenty of room in the case to preseve the idea that police may have also been at fault, but that criminal defense attorneys didn't understand why they should nuance such claims - they weren't thinking ahead to what the civil litigation would look like if their client won.

Often it seems like criminal and civil attorneys operate in different worlds. And certainly a criminal defense attorney's first obligation is to avoid or overturn their client's convictin. But at least for those working on innocence projects, where victory should almost always lead to possible civil claims by those who were wrongfully convicted, Blackburn's right it does a disservice when attorneys don't think about the bigger picture.

Thanks, btw, to the NLG for letting me slip into the event gratis for blogging purposes. I appreciate the solid.


800 pound gorilla said...

Once you have lost the main event - with the odds stacked against any defendant - it's not as easy as you might think to conceive of suspect being absolved. It's not as easy as the anecdotal evidence given by authoritarians would suggest. Once you've been convicted you go to the Cardassian system of justice: guilty until proven innocent. Occasionally you get a Federation judge - but they're few and far between.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I agree for most lawyers, but for Innocence Projects where a) law profs are running the show and b) they mostly take cases where they've found evidence of actual innocence, it's not too much to ask to think ahead.

Blackburn was involved in both criminal and civil aspects of the Tulia case, and he successfully navigated those issues - it's not impossible. I agree, though, in average appeals it's not as big a factor as for the Innocence folks.