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Mr. Jeff Blackburn, 65, of Amarillo, Texas, and El Prado, New Mexico, passed away from cancer on Tuesday, February 7, 2023, in Taos, New Mexico.
Jeff was born on International Worker’s Day, May 1, 1957. He grew up in Amarillo, Texas, and at the time of his death was living in both New Mexico and Texas.
He received his law degree from the University of Houston and began practicing law in Amarillo in 1983. Jeff’s long legal career was spent representing the poor and disadvantaged, often for free, in criminal and civil rights cases all over Texas.
In 1985, two years out of law school, he briefed and argued the case of Texas v. McCullough before the United States Supreme Court. He became board certified as a specialist in criminal law in 1988 and remained so until the time of his death. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he handled many high-visibility cases, including whistleblower and death penalty cases, across the state. He was once called the “trouble-makingest lawyer in West Texas” by Texas Lawyer newspaper. Jeff took it as a great compliment.
In 2001, he tackled the cases of 38 people, nearly all of whom were African American, arrested for drugs in Tulia, Texas. After years of painstaking pro-bono legal work during which he formed and led a national coalition of lawyers, his clients were exonerated in what remains the largest mass pardon in United States history. This event led to the passage of significant criminal justice reform legislation, including defunding drug task forces, much of which Jeff conceived and co-authored.
In 2006, he founded the Innocence Project of Texas. He served as its Chief Counsel until 2015. That organization, based at Texas Tech Law School, exonerated dozens of wrongfully convicted people and won national acclaim. In late 2009, he secured the exoneration of Tim Cole, a young man who had been falsely convicted and died in prison. This posthumous exoneration, the first of its kind in Texas, led to the passage of multiple reforms, including the Tim Cole Compensation Act and the creation of the Tim Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions. There is now a monument to Mr. Cole in Lubbock, Texas, honoring his memory and the work done by Jeff and the Innocence Project of Texas. He and Kevin Glasheen, also established the Tim Cole Scholarship at Texas Tech to help law students willing to work to free the innocent.
Jeff pioneered other reforms in Texas, including laws and rules that limit the use of junk science and false eyewitness identification by prosecutors.
He was passionate about the need to improve the quality of public defense. He believed that the lack of a statewide public defender was the root of most evil in Texas criminal justice, and he worked for years to establish one. From 2010 until 2013, he chaired the Texas State Bar’s Committee on Legal Services to the Poor in Criminal Matters. He co-authored and secured the enactment of the “Performance Guidelines for Non-Capital Criminal Defense Representation,” which are in wide use today as a standard for improving the quality of criminal defense in Texas. After publishing an award-winning report about the condition of criminal justice in Amarillo, Texas, he was instrumental in getting the national Sixth Amendment Center to study the indigent defense system as well. As a result of that effort, a new public defender and managed assigned counsel system were created in his hometown.
Jeff won many state and national awards throughout his career, including Texas Criminal Defense Lawyer of the Year, the Frank Spurlock Award, the Henry B. Gonzalez award, the Michael Moore Award, the Maury Maverick Award, the William Kunstler Award, and, most recently, in 2022, the Warren Burnett Award. Over the years he was honored for his work by the Texas State Bar, the Texas Civil Rights Project, The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Amarillo Branch, The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and other civil rights groups. He was rated by Texas Monthly as a ”Super Lawyer” for over fifteen years until the time of his death.
He was featured in many television shows and films throughout his career, including the Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) feature film, “Tulia,” released in 2009, and most recently the documentary “Kid Candidate,” released in 2021. There were many others before and between.
However. Jeff’s life was about much more than law and criminal justice reform. He loved life, his family, travel, great conversation, good music, organic farming, and the mountains and deserts of northern New Mexico. Perpetually curious and open-minded, he read widely in history, economics, and philosophy. He loved art, poetry, and literature. He was a terrific father and grandfather, and a loyal and generous friend and mentor to countless people throughout his life.
In his last months, Jeff was lucky to be supported by his family and dozens of close friends and colleagues, many of whom journeyed to Taos, New Mexico, to see him before he passed and deserve special thanks. The wonderful people of Red Willow Hospice in Taos provided close spiritual and medical support to Jeff and his family that went far above and beyond what could ever be expected by caregivers.
He is survived by his sons, Sam Blackburn and John Blackburn, his daughter-in-law, Scotney Blackburn, two grandchildren, Archer Blackburn and Oliver Blackburn, and his partner, Jessy Tyler. Sam and Scotney live in El Prado, New Mexico, with Jeff’s grandchildren. John lives in Gay Mills, Wisconsin.
Jeff’s last project was creating a new civil rights organization in northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. Memorials for him in lieu of flowers may be made payable to the Rio Grande Regional Justice Project, in care of his partner in the project, Kathryn Hardy, Attorney at Law, P O Box 3602, Taos, New Mexico 87571, firstname.lastname@example.org.
There will be a celebration of life for Jeff at 1:00 PM on Saturday, March 4, 2023, at one of his favorite places, the Amarillo Botanical Gardens with a reception to follow.
Jeff’s family would like to share the Houston Chronicle’s retrospective of his career published the day after he passed: https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/texas/article/jeff-blackburn-obit-texas-attorney-tulia-drug-bust-17755009.php#photo-2344556
Please sign the On-Line Guest Book, and view Mr. Jeff Blackburn’s full obituary at www.warfordmortuary.com.