A wrongly convicted man freed by DNA evidence is suing his civil lawyer and an Innocence Project of Texas official, saying they want too large a chunk of the nearly $1.3 million he received for spending 16 years in prison.
Patrick Waller, wrongly imprisoned from 1992-2008, is on an expanding list of Texas DNA exonerees upset over what they call excessive attorney fees. His lawsuit filed this week is the second in a month as a formerly feel-good story about freedom and delayed justice devolves into a battle over turf and money.
Waller recently received a seven-figure lump sum under a new state compensation law that attorney Kevin Glasheen lobbied for on behalf of his 13 wrongly convicted clients.
Waller said he paid Glasheen $650,000 in fees, and Glasheen in turn will pay a $130,000 referral fee to Jeff Blackburn, the chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas.
Glasheen dismissed Waller's lawsuit as "a weak claim" Wednesday. Blackburn declined to comment, saying he hadn't yet seen the lawsuit.
Waller agrees Glasheen should be paid for his lobbying work, but contends he hired a lawyer, not a lobbyist. He also said he was shocked to learn about Blackburn's fee, even though Blackburn's innocence group was involved in Waller's case.
The group paid for a second round of DNA tests after an initial test excluded Waller as the perpetrator. Waller had been convicted of aggravated robbery and aggravated kidnapping stemming from the 1992 abduction of a Dallas couple.
"Jeff Blackburn didn't refer me" to Glasheen, said Waller, 40. "I am not a free man because of Jeff Blackburn."
Waller credits his lead attorney, Gary Udashen, as being most responsible for freeing him. Udashen is receiving about $100,000 from Glasheen in the case, a fee which Waller said he does not oppose.
Glasheen's original plan was to file federal civil rights lawsuits for his wrongly convicted clients -- a risky proposition because such suits can take years and have uncertain outcomes. He did so for several clients, but not Waller.
Glasheen then persuaded his 13 exoneree clients to withdraw their suits while he pursued a different strategy: lobbying the Texas Legislature to increase compensation.
It paid off for everyone. Texas went from paying the wrongly convicted $50,000 for each year of incarceration to $80,000 per year, plus a lifetime $80,000 annuity that varies based on life expectancy and other factors. The compensation package is the most generous in the nation.
Exonerees get paid more, and so does Glasheen. According to Waller's lawsuit, Glasheen would receive at least $8 million in fees from his clients -- more than any individual exoneree.
"I mean, come on, man," Waller said. "He ended up with more money than any of us."
Glasheen said his fee was agreed to in writing by Waller and Steven Phillips, the other wrongly convicted exoneree suing the attorneys. He added that he shouldn't be punished for finding a quicker solution to getting his clients paid.
"We were committed to take these all the way through to trial and appeal if need be," Glasheen said. "That we found a better solution than litigation isn't something we ought to be criticized for doing."
Blackburn and Glasheen say the lawsuits are part of a turf battle among Texas innocence groups. They point out that the wife of Randy Turner, the lawyer representing Waller and Phillips, resigned from the Innocence Project of Texas board. She is dean of students at Texas Wesleyan's law school, which has its own innocence group.
Turner said in an e-mail that his wife resigned over a separate issue unrelated to "disapproval of the millions of dollars the lawyers were making."
Vince Nowak, Blackburn's attorney, framed the lawsuits as a "PR gimmick designed to undermine the work of the Innocence Project of Texas."
"Jeff and Kevin spent a lot of money changing a law to help these people and anyone who is going to be exonerated," Nowak said. "To file a lawsuit after an incredible result, it just floors me."