The Innocence Project of Texas has freed a half dozen wrongfully convicted men through the work of volunteers. They claim the prison gates might swing open for more inmates if they had more money to underwrite their legal investigations.
The DNA test that set Johnny Pinchback free after 27 years behind bars wasn’t due to any good faith effort by the state.
It was because the Innocence Project of Texas recognized that a special type of DNA test was needed to prove he didn’t commit the crime — and the group raised the money to have it done.
In May of last year, Pinchback became a free man. He credits fellow exoneree Charles Chatman — with whom he shared a cell block — with convincing the Innocence Project to move his case to the top of its ever-growing stack.
Without Chatman’s efforts on his behalf, Pinchback said, the Innocence Project’s group of volunteer attorneys and law students at the University of Texas at Dallas likely wouldn’t have gotten around to his case until 2014.
“They went to work,” a grateful Pinchback said. “It was one hair that proved my innocence.”
Coincidentally, Pinchback also was at the same prison unit as another Dallas-area exoneree — Victor Thomas of Ellis County.
Speaking from the front porch of the Cedar Hill home he now shares with his wife, Pinchback recalls how Natalie Roetzel, the Innocence Project’s chief staff attorney, became convinced that the state had imprisoned the wrong man.
“She said, ‘You know what? I’m not going to stop until you’re free — until I see you walk out those gates,’” Pinchback said.
Attorneys Gary Udashen and Jason Partney also worked to free Pinchback.
Roetzel said that the advanced Y-STR DNA testing — needed to prove that Pinchback was innocent of the two sexual assaults in Dallas County for which he was convicted in 1984 — highlights why financial support of the Lubbock-based Innocence Project could mean everything in terms of bringing true justice to the Lone Star State.
“Without sufficient funding and a legal team experienced enough to recognize the types of testing required for Johnny’s case, he may very well still be incarcerated,” she said.
On a Friday evening in late September, an email blast was sent by Barry Scheck from the national Innocence Project group based in New York. It was an announcement that Louisiana death row inmate Damon Thibodeaux had just become the nation’s 300th DNA exoneree.
The Texas Innocence Project group — which is independent of Scheck’s higher-profile organization — has successfully won exonerations for a half dozen Texas inmates since Amarillo defense lawyer Jeff Blackburn founded the group in 2005. That number does not include exonerations brought about by the individual efforts of the organization’s board members, Blackburn said.
Of 152,000 inmates in 111 Texas prison units, Chatman, Thomas and Pinchback ironically shared the same prison unit – and two were even on the same cell block.
If it turns out that their connection is the rule rather than the exception, it could have significant implications for the Texas justice system.
While some, like Pinchback, believe that Blackburn is doing the Lord’s work, others likely feel that he gives them hell.
According to Innocence Project of Texas Executive Director Nick Vilbas, it was Blackburn who found an obscure reference in the Texas Constitution that opened the door for courts of inquiry to investigate charges of prosecutorial misconduct in wrongful convictions.
In December, former Williamson County prosecutor Ken Anderson – now a district judge – will be the subject of a court of inquiry headed by Tarrant County state district judge Louis Sturns. The investigation is tied to the wrongful murder conviction in 1987 of Michael Morton, who was exonerated in October 2011.
Earlier this year, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson called for a review of the evidence against Anderson.
Blackburn, a colorful advocate for the poor and the accused, makes no bones about his disdain for those who tout the “myth” that America has the greatest justice system in the world.
“It’s baton-twirling nonsense,” he said. “Our criminal justice system is so broken, and so unfair. The system is completely rigged against somebody who has been convicted.
“The view of the system is to never question the conviction, and to stand behind it at all cost. It’s a huge effort to get somebody out [of prison] because the law is so completely stacked against the guy who’s trying to get his conviction overturned.”
Each year, the Innocence Project receives $80,000 from the Legislature, which pays the salaries of Vilbas and a staffer at the Lubbock office. The money is funneled through Texas Tech University, Blackburn said.
The law students at Texas Tech are the leading group of student volunteers for the organization, Blackburn said, although law students at Southern Methodist University, Texas Wesleyan, UT-Dallas, the University of Houston-Clear Lake and South Texas College of Law also volunteer.
The wish list
Blackburn said that if the Innocence Project had an annual budget of $750,000 or more, he would move its headquarters to Dallas, where another 30 to 40 law students would be added to the volunteer pool. An expert would be hired to run the organization “as a serious nonprofit,” he said, and full-time, paid lawyers also would be brought on board.
“I think if that happened, you would see a lot more people coming out [of prison],” Blackburn said. “We’re so under-funded and so broke that it’s a wonder to me that we’ve gotten done what we’ve gotten done.”
The Innocence Project has managed to “plow new ground,” Blackburn said, by achieving the first posthumous exoneration in the U.S. and exposing flaws in dog-scent line-ups, in addition to demanding that prosecutors be held accountable for proven misdeeds.
In Pinchback’s case, the wrongful conviction was due to faulty eyewitness identification.
On Saturday, Sept. 29, law students volunteering for the Innocence Project gathered in Dallas to score the eyewitness identification policies of about 1,200 law enforcement agencies throughout the state. Mistakes made by eyewitnesses have been found to be a leading cause of wrongful convictions.
The 82nd Legislature mandated that every law enforcement agency have a written policy on eyewitness identifications in place by Sept. 1. The Innocence Project submitted Open Records requests to get copies of all the policies.
“It’s a lot to do, but we’ve got a plan in place to get it done,” said Vilbas, adding that he plans for the organization to release a report with the individual agencies’ scores in November.
Blackburn said that increased funding could make all the difference in Texas.
“If we wink out, this work just isn’t going to get done,” he said. “We are vitally important, yet ridiculously underfunded.”
Pinchback, who now works with Chatman to help newly released inmates re-acclimate to society, said he feels no bitterness toward the young women who inaccurately identified him as their attacker. He focuses instead on gratitude and living for today.
“I don’t take anything for granted,” he said, “because it could be stripped away in an eye blink.”
Kathy Cruz is a staff writer at The Hood county News in Granbury. She can be reached at [email protected]