FORT WORTH — A Carrollton man who spent a quarter-century in prison before being exonerated last year by DNA evidence is suing his former attorneys and an attorney associated with the Innocence Project of Texas, accusing them of operating a kickback scheme to collect 25 percent of money paid to exonerees.
But the lawyers say the work they did for Steven Phillips and a group of Dallas County former convicts was part of a strategy that was instrumental in persuading the Legislature to increase payments for exonerees this year.
And they say the lawsuit, filed this week, is part of a power grab by other attorneys trying to get a piece of the "innocence" movement.
"When there is a lot of cheese on the table, rats will come out and try to steal a piece of the cheese," said Kevin Glasheen of Lubbock, who was named in the suit and who has represented more than a dozen exonerees.
Phillips was in prison from 1982 to 2007 in connection with the rape of a north Dallas woman. DNA evidence eventually linked another man to the crime. Phillips was officially exonerated in 2008.
Under a law enacted this year, Phillips would be entitled to more than $4 million: a $2 million lump sum and $80,000 a year in annuities.
When Phillips initially sued Glasheen, he said that he was being overcharged and, in subsequent court documents, that Glasheen did no legal work for him. Glasheen’s firm was not involved in the court case that led to Phillips being freed. It was handled by Barry Scheck’s New York-based Innocence Project.
But a few months after being released from prison, Phillips was stranded and broke in Missouri. A representative of Glasheen’s firm boarded a plane and met Phillips, gave him a $3,400 loan and lured him into a contingent-fee agreement, according to the lawsuit.
"When he got the invoice and saw these lawyers were trying to get $1 million out of the $2 million he was going to get, he didn’t think they did any legal work and that it was excessive," said Phillips’ new attorney, Randy Turner of Fort Worth.
The lawsuit that Turner filed for Phillips claims that Glasheen is billing him $965,095 for "lobbying" efforts and that Jeff Blackburn, an Amarillo attorney with the Innocence Project of Texas who was not contracted to represent him, was listed on a document as a "referring attorney" who would be paid $412,936.
Glasheen said a document in Phillips’ file listed Blackburn as sharing in legal fees because Blackburn was helping his work in Austin. But Glasheen said Phillips was never billed for his services.
The lawsuit claims that Blackburn’s ties to the Innocence Project of Texas allowed him to help Glasheen identify exonerees who were due state compensation. The suit also says Blackburn was paid "kickbacks" for his role.
Blackburn said Friday that he did not know how to respond to the allegations because he has not seen the lawsuit.
"I’m really shocked that this lawsuit is happening," he said. "I don’t have a contractual relationship with Mr. Phillips on this case."
Blackburn suggested that Phillips is "striking out any way he can to avoid paying his lawyer," and he praised Glasheen’s work on behalf of inmates who have made exoneration claims.
'Nasty hot air’
Glasheen called the lawsuit "a shotgun accusation that we’re evil."
"We moved this entire class of wrongful-conviction cases in Dallas, including" Phillips’, through the legal system, he said.
"It is true we didn’t move Steven’s individual case. But the strategy resulted in a higher payout. The bulk of legal work was part of the lobbying effort. I disagree that that work should not be compensated."
Glasheen went on to say that Blackburn’s work on the Dallas County cases was part of an "entire project."
"I don’t think there is anything wrong with lawyers sharing fees on a case," Glasheen said.
All the attorneys involved in the dispute agree that the allegations in Phillips’ lawsuit, if found to have any merit, have potentially serious legal repercussions for Glasheen and Blackburn.
"This whole thing is nasty for sure, but it’s nasty hot air. There’s no substance to it," Glasheen said.
He said the lawsuit is really about Turner and others in the Fort Worth area trying to start their own innocence project.
He said Turner’s wife, Patti, a Fort Worth attorney who served on the Innocence Project of Texas’ board, wanted to spread the exoneration cases out to attorneys other than Glasheen and Blackburn.
Turner said: "That’s what he wants everybody to think. Look, Glasheen sued me personally and my wife and professor [John] Stickels, claiming . . . essentially, that we encouraged [Phillips] to breach his contract with him."
Stickels, an attorney, oversees the Innocence Project at the University of Texas at Arlington.
State comptroller records show that Phillips is due $1.2 million, plus a reduced annuity payment because he was not cleared of six other felony convictions, including indecency with a child.
Turner says that Phillips was exonerated in the other cases and that he is submitting paperwork to the state to get his client the full $4.1 million.
I disagree that that work should not be compensated."
Kevin Glasheen of Lubbock,a lawyer named in the suit