Tuesday, March 07, 2023

Jeff Blackburn Memorial Comments

On Saturday, per his request, I spoke at Jeff Blackburn's memorial service about our work together in the aftermath of the Tulia drug stings and at the Innocence Project of Texas; here's what I said. Below my comments, I've compiled links to a guest post by Jeff and various interviews with him on this blog over the years, if only for my own selfish purposes: It was nice to turn on a couple this morning and hear the sound of his nasally, flat, Panhandle drawl. They broke the mold after Jeff Blackburn and I probably will never stop missing him. Rest in Power, brother.


For the first year or so I knew Jeff Blackburn he was mad at me. I was part of a group of people who revived the ACLU in Texas after it had been dormant a number of years, and in 2000 we began organizing family members of the Tulia defendants to bring them to the capitol in Austin to push for drug-law reform.

Along with Vanita Gupta, who at the time was a 26-year-old rookie and is now the #3 at the US Department of Justice, Jeff had taken on a civil suit on behalf of the Tulia defendants, and he was sure their family members were going to say something at the capitol to screw up his case. We defied Jeff and did it anyway, which made him more or less apoplectic. He and I had some epic rows. But we also kept him in the loop, bringing him down to Austin whenever the families came so he could see first-hand what we were doing.

One of the “Tulia bills” we passed that session created a new requirement that prosecutors corroborate testimony by confidential informants to secure a drug conviction. In September 2001, when the law took effect, a reporter called around to the largest DA’s offices to ask how many cases they’d dropped as a result: The number was around 800, and that was just for the 5 or 6 largest counties. To be clear, for the non-attorneys in the audience, that’s 800 people who would otherwise have been convicted based solely on the testimony of drug dealers getting their own cases dismissed in exchange for cooperation.

One of my fondest memories was calling Jeff to tell him this news. I’ll never forget the long pause on the other end of the phone line, then he said quietly -- as quietly as I've ever heard Jeff Blackburn say anything -- “Henson, I couldn’t get that many cases dismissed in 10 lifetimes!”

From that moment, Jeff was hooked. We became collaborators, coordinating legal and organizing work to craft a narrative and build a movement beyond the confines of the courtroom. It worked. Eventually, 38 defendants were exonerated and Tom Coleman, the crooked cop who’d framed them, was convicted of perjury.

Not only were several significant pieces of legislation passed as a result, in 2006 we achieved the Holy Grail. Governor Rick Perry eliminated all funding for the task forces. When the Tulia drug stings happened, there were 51 of these things around the state employing more than 700 narcotics officers and making between 12-14,000 arrests per year. Fifteen years before anyone coined the phrase “defund the police,” we wiped them off the face of the earth.

Soon after that, Jeff founded the Innocence Project of Texas and I became their policy director. Once again, organizing exonerees to advocate for themselves was a central strategy, only this time Jeff was an enthusiastic supporter. I’m incredibly proud of that work, and I know Jeff was, too, but since Cory Session is going to talk more about that era in a moment, I’d like to pivot to another subject.

Since Jeff passed, a line from a pop tune by Lizzo has been ringing in my head. In one of her early songs, she asked: “Why men great till they gotta be great?” That applies to most men, but to me, Jeff was the opposite. Day to day, if we’re honest, Jeff wasn’t always that great. He was a curmudgeon; obstinate, profane, prickly, blunt. He was challenging to work with and five failed marriages tells you he could be a challenging person to live with. By saying that, I’m not telling you anything Jeff hasn’t said himself many, many times.

But when the time came that someone’s “gotta be great,” Jeff always stepped up. Every time. He thrived and excelled in those big, high-pressure moments and at crunch time was always his best self. That’s rare and part of what made him special. It’s certainly why he merited a massive, front-page obituary in the Houston Chronicle: Jeff’s work benefited many, many thousands of people all over the state. No other lawyer has had as big an impact on the Texas criminal-justice system in my adult lifetime.

Now that he’s gone, those of us who knew and loved Jeff and believed in his work incur an obligation. Leaving here today, all of us going forward will find ourselves in situations where we think, “If Jeff Blackburn were here, he would do X.” This knowledge creates a moral obligation. With Jeff no longer here, when you recognize a situation where you know he would have stepped up, that means you need to do it. That’s the best way we can honor his memory. The people in this room are a powerful force, and Jeff has given us a powerful example. My prayer is that everyone here today can find the courage and the will to follow it.

More of Jeff Blackburn on Grits:


  1. Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner3/07/2023 04:27:00 PM

    Thank you!

  2. Great to have some Grits on the table! My justice diet has been deficient without it. The work continues!

  3. You did a great job. The whole service was inspiring and uplifting.

  4. I learned a lot working for him after leaving the District Attorney's Office. Later, as his law partner, I continued to learn from this ever-profane, irascible, pontificator. I'm going to miss him.

  5. So good to hear from you, Grits.