Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Blackburn died after a battle with kidney cancer.
AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – According to an announcement from family members and professional associates, Amarillo native and attorney Jeff Blackburn died at the age of 65 on Tuesday in New Mexico after a battle with kidney cancer, according to a family member.
As noted in his obituary as released by his most recent law firm, Tisdell Law Firm, Blackburn began practicing law in Amarillo in 1983 and spent his decades-long legal career representing underserved people, often for free, in criminal and civil rights cases around Texas. He was noted as having handled many high-visibility cases, including whistleblower and death penalty cases, to the point he was called the “trouble-makingest lawyer in West Texas” by Texas Lawyer newspaper.
“One of the best lawyers I’ve ever worked with. And just as a person, that the thing I think is most remarkable about him is how dedicated he was to this issue concerning innocent people in prison,” said Gary Udashen, member of Innocence Project of Texas. “And I think that’s just the way he lived his life when he was interested in something he got completely interested in, totally put himself out there to do what he thought was right.”
Blackburn was a major player in significant criminal justice reform after taking on the cases of 38 people in 2001 who were arrested on drug-related charges in Tulia. Over the next few years, during which he formed and led a national coalition of lawyers, his clients were exonerated in what his published obituary phrased as the largest mass pardon in US history. Blackburn went on to contribute to developing the subsequent criminal justice reform legislation, which involved defunding drug task forces.
In 2006, Blackburn was also a founder of the Innocence Project of Texas alongside Mike Ware, and served as its Chief Counsel until 2015. He was also a significant player in the posthumous exoneration of Tim Cole and the following passage of further reforms, including the Tim Cole Compensation Act and other laws and rules.
“Jeff, was one of the people that really brought this movement to Texas. And it’s important, first of all, it’s important that people that are innocent not be in prison, and they need advocates like Jeff Blackburn, to ensure that that doesn’t happen,” said Udashen. “And then they need advocates like Jeff Blackburn and the Innocence Project of Texas, to try to correct the issues in the system that lead to people being wrongfully convicted.”
Further, as noted in the posted obituary, Blackburn chaired the State Bar’s Committee on Legal Services to the Poor in Criminal Matters, co-authored and/or published multiple sets of criminal defense representation guidelines and criminal justice reports, and was the recipient of a range of state and national awards. He was also rated as a “Super Lawyer” by Texas Monthly for over 15 years until his death.
Outside of the professional sphere, Blackburn’s obituary noted that his life “was about much more” than only 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,” read his obituary, “In his last months, Jeff was strongly supported by his family and dozens of close friends and colleagues, many of whom journeyed to Taos 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.”
Blackburn’s obituary noted that he is survived by his sons Sam and John, his daughter-in-law Scotney, his two grandchildren Archer and Oliver and his partner Jessy Tyler. While a small private ceremony is planned in El Prado for family and close friends, a public event has been scheduled at 1 p.m. on March 4 at the Amarillo Botanical Gardens.
The obituary also detailed that Blackburn’s last project was focused on a new civil rights organization in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Memorials in lieu of flowers can be made to the group, the Rio Grande Regional Justice Project, via his project partner Kathryn Hardy, Attorney at Law, at firstname.lastname@example.org.