Thursday, 1 January 2009
Thursday, Jan 1, 2009
Posted on Thu, Jan. 01, 2009
Innocence Project lost funding in Madoff case
By MAX B. BAKER
After seeing money earmarked for DNA testing get swept away in the Bernard Madoff scandal, the chief counsel of the Innocence Project of Texas is calling on state lawmakers to improve overall funding for agencies investigating cases of inmates who may have been wrongfully convicted.
Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas at Texas Tech University, said so much more could be done to resolve the cases if the Texas Legislature spent a small fraction of the $2.3 billion it currently spends on operating the prisons.
"The current system is not workable and needs more funding," Blackburn said. "And all this Madoff scandal illustrates is how the state itself, which after all created this problem, needs to step up and solve it."
The Innocence Project was awarded a $450,000 grant from the New York-based JEHT Foundation in June to pay for DNA testing and expenses related to work on cases being reviewed by the Dallas County district attorney.
But JEHT, a nonprofit group that focused mostly on juvenile justice, said it was freezing its grants and would shut down at the end of January because its major donor’s investments had been managed by Madoff, a storied Wall Street money manager who was once the chairman of the Nasdaq Stock Market.
Madoff was arrested and accused by federal prosecutors of running a $50 billion scheme to defraud investors. In December, a federal judge ordered that the assets of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities be liquidated and moved to bankruptcy court.
Natalie Roetzel of the Innocence Project said they were supposed to get $250,000 over two years for DNA testing, staffing and equipment for the Dallas County part of their project. She said that the Innocence Project spends $4,000 to $5,000 on DNA tests for each case.
She said that not all of the money from JEHT had been paid out to the Innocence Project and that they are still going through documents to determine how many installments had been paid. She said the New York foundation told them that whatever they had received was theirs to keep.
Roetzel said that they are still trying to determine how it will affect any cases they are working on and that they will have to go back through their $150,000 budget and possibly reallocate money for the Dallas County cases. So far, DNA testing has exonerated 19 men in Dallas.
"We’re trying to determine how this will impact us and deciding which cases are the highest priority, which will mean putting some cases on the back burner, and it could mean someone will spend more time in prison," she said.
Grant applications have been submitted to the nonprofit Meadows Foundation in Dallas and to the Texas Bar Foundation, a philanthropic group run by the State Bar of Texas for the advancement of the justice system.
Blackburn said the Innocence Project of Texas and similar organizations wouldn’t have to scramble for money if the state adequately funded their efforts. Currently, the four innocence projects run at four Texas law schools, with each getting $100,000 a year. Their efforts aren’t coordinated to maximize their impact, he said.
"The prison system is asking the Legislature to give it $500 million more this year for increased salaries to maintain its current level of operations. One five-hundredth of that amount — $1 million — would guarantee that the innocence work in this state could go forward," Blackburn said.
Blackburn recommends that the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense be given additional money for investigating actual innocence cases and that it take a more active role in managing the projects.
The other innocence projects are at the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Houston and Texas Southern University.
"So far, the state of Texas has gotten close to a free ride because we’ve had to scramble for other money to operate and to investigate these cases," he said.
Innocence Project of Texas Individuals wanting to donate money to the Innocence Project of Texas for DNA testing and other operational expenses can make tax-deductible donations to the group’s offices at 1511 Texas Ave., Lubbock, TX 79401.