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Professor Bob Dawson, In His Own Words

An oral history interview of Dawson
commissioned by the Tarlton Law Library
and conducted by Pat Hazel

Bob Dawson was an important and influential Texas reformer and educational innovator.

He co-founded UT Law’s Criminal Defense Clinic in 1974. He and his co-supervisors worked with more than 1,200 students on more than 7,200 criminal defendants’ cases.

Professor Dawson and Professor Jack Sampson also played key roles in the reform of Texas’ juvenile justice code.

Dawson lived on a ranch in Fentress, Texas, southeast of Austin with his wife Jan. They have one daughter, Kate.

Excerpts from the oral interview with Professor Pat Hazel discuss Dawson’s thoughts on the evolution of Texas’ juvenile justice code, the Criminal Defense Clinic’s first U.S. Supreme Court case, fly-fishing, his work in equine law. The extended interview, forthcoming from the Tartlon Law Library, will be released at a later date.

On the State of Texas’s juvenile justice code:

“We have a juvenile justice system, that quite honestly, is regarded by most knowledgeable observers in the United States as one of the best available anywhere. Which is remarkable, for a state like Texas, which is not really known, for social services.”

On his work reforming Texas’ juvenile justice code:

“I got the /Texas teaching/ offer in 1968 and then two things happened that, both of which turned out to be very important to me and Page /Keeton, Dean/ was really responsible for both of them. One was, the State Bar was in the process of revising the family law, the family code, making the family code, putting together all this stuff. Modernize it. Texas family law was archaic at that time. Particularly with regard to women’s rights. It was just, you know, older and 19th century, as a matter of fact. In any event, they needed someone to do the juvenile justice portion of the family laws and anyone else not here to do it. And Page knew that I had done work in juvenile justice and so he said, I can get money from the Hogg Foundation to give you a summer salary, if you want to work on that. So I said, “Yeah.” So that summer of ’68 I was working on my thesis, on my dissertation and I was working on, beginning to work on a juvenile justice code. And every other month I would go up to Dallas and I had a committee of lawyers and I would present to them some sections that I drafted over the past several weeks and we’d go over it and then we’d revise it and we just did that process. It took about four years. And we finally ended up with titles for the family code, which still exist in modified form. But that took from ’68, we actually got the job done in ’70, in ’71, but the legislature rejected it; it was too liberal. But then with the Sharpstown scandal and all the other stuff, we had that magic session of the legislature in 1973. The only session of the legislature that could probably be fairly characterized as liberal politically. And in that same session, they enacted the penal code and Titles 2 and 3 of the family code. So we got our law in place. So that was one development that occurred. I owe all of that to Page, because he didn’t have to do that, I was the new kid on the block, but for whatever reason it was, he thought I could do the job and I have been active in juvenile justice ever since. I’ve been down at the legislature for virtually every session since 1973 and have written almost all of the juvenile laws in the state of Texas. I don’t want to take credit for it. I write it and committees go over it, and you know, the whole process. But, I guess I would characterize myself as the principal draftsman of virtually all the juvenile laws in the State of Texas and we’ve invented several new things that have caught on nationally. I’m still very active. I’m now in the exact middle of writing the sixth edition of a book called Texas Juvenile Law, which is published by the Juvenile Probation Commission. They sell about 8,000 copies of each edition and it’s sort of the, it’s kind of like the lawnmower operating manual for the Juvenile Justice system. Everyone relies on it. And so I’m very pleased with that.

About the Criminal Defense Clinic’s First Supreme Court Case:

“In the early years, when we had a more receptive Court of Criminal Appeals, we did a lot of law reform work. We would take cases up on appeal that changed the laws in some areas. One case we took up, we won before the United States Supreme Court. It was an interesting case in which our client had a little fender bender. Actually, it wasn’t our client. Our client was innocent, as it turns out. A person had a fender bender with a woman in downtown Austin. Just a little nudge and bumped both cars. They exchanged information and she started yelling at him and he said, “Fuck you.” And she went down to the police station and they filed abusive language charges on the person. It turned out it was a roommate of our client who had his driver’s license in his car. But that’s really irrelevant to the lawsuit. So they came out and they issued a summons against our client. He comes to us, he tells us the story it wasn’t me. Well, I don’t know if we can prove that; she’s going to ID you in court. Who’s she going to ID, the judge, the bailiff, right you know; this is an admissible court case. At that time a $200 fine. Bill Allison represented the guy and it was a student. We reached our; it’s very clear, you can’t make words into crimes unless the words cause some risk or physical injury. Uh, fighting words. Uh, yelling falsely, “Fire!” in a crowded theatre is the classic example. Ok, this is none of that. This was simply he lost his temper, he said something he shouldn’t have said, but it’s not a crime. And you can’t make it a crime. Now, the municipal court judge thought it was a crime. So he convicted our guy. We took an appeal de novo up to County Court at Law and ended up in front of Judge Mary Pearl Williams, whose husband, Jerry Williams, was currently teaching out here, ConLaw and Administrative Law and had been for years before since I came. And then later on Jerry, of course, became a judge on the Fifth Circuit. And Mary Pearl moved up to the District Bench and just retired a couple of years ago. In any event, we made the same constitutional arguments in front of Mary Pearl and she turned them down. Convicted our guy. And we said, “Judge, would you impose a fine of over a hundred dollars, because in Texas law you cannot appeal to the Court of Appeals from a trial de novo from a municipal court case unless the fine is over $100. And she wouldn’t do it. She gave him like an $80 fine. So we researched the law and we figured out we have no more appeal remedies in Texas. We’ll just file a certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court and they did. And about two months later Bill started getting these phone calls from the Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters, saying what about this hacker case that was summarily reversed by U.S. Supreme Court and you’re the attorney of record and that’s the first Bill knew about it. And, uh, it turns out that the court didn’t even order an oral argument, unanimously reversed on the ground that these words, said under these circumstances, cannot under the First Amendment be a crime. And so it was a small little case. But it was a lot of fun.”

About the new Actual Innocence Clinic:

Bill Allison was in the Criminal Defense Clinic as a supervising attorney for two years full-time and another thirteen years part-time before he retired two years ago. Dave Shepperd, outstanding criminal defense lawyer downtown, was an adjunct professor with the Clinic for fifteen years. Those two and I have formed a Texas not-for-profit corporation called the Texas Center for Actual Innocence. And we got an IRS 501C3 approval for it. The purpose of the center is to get people out of prison who are actually innocent of the crime they’ve been convicted of. Innocence, we don’t mean technical innocence, where maybe it was self-defense or not. We mean, you got the wrong guy innocence and we can prove through DNA testing or some other method. And we started this program this past summer and we’re working with the law school and we had ten students in the fall semester. Each of them got credits of directive study credit so it, this started out like the Criminal Defense Clinic yet. Someday it will be, but we’re working our way through the backdoor, right? We’re sneaking in. We meet with them every week and we screened about 250 letters from inmates so far. We’ve found a dozen or so that our promising and that we’re continuing to work with and get more information on. And we figure within a year or so, we’re going to have some guy sprung, on the grounds that we can prove actual innocence. Bill, himself, Bill Allison, himself, has gotten two people out of prison, by proving that they were actually innocent. One was a rape case; the other was a murder case. These are, every letter we get is rape or murder; we don’t get misdemeanors and we don’t auto thefts and burglaries or damned few of them. Dave Shepperd, the third guy in the program, got a guy out of prison, this past year, a co-defendant of Bill’s on actual innocence grounds. Bill just got a settlement on the City of Austin for his client for $5.3 million, because a police detective coerced him into falsely confessing and then naming the other guy. The other guy, a guy named Danzinger, was in prison under the false testimony of Ochoa, Bill’s client and while he was in prison just got the holy hell beat out of him, so that now he’s almost a vegetable. He requires 24-hour a day care. The City of Austin just settled a $9-million lawsuit on him and the County settled a $900,000 lawsuit on him. And so that got them interested in the whole idea of actual innocence. There are actual innocence projects around the country. Barry Scheck has one in New York. There’s one running out of a school of journalism at Northwestern in Chicago, you may have heard of. There’s one that’s been going in the University of Houston Law School for three years. They got six people out in three years on actual innocence. These are six people serving long sentences in University of Texas prison system who actually had nothing to do with the crime. And they were able to prove it through DNA testing and other investigative techniques. We’re just starting now and we’re just screening cases now and we’re getting cases that seem, that seem plausible. The students love it….I mean it really is a wonderful experience. They are so enthusiastic and so careful and so diligent in their work. They’re just amazing. So it’s going to go on. We have a new class starting in the Spring semester and then when we get these things into the investigative stage, what we did was we managed, it didn’t take much talking, we went to Graves Dougherty Law Firm, one of the outstanding law firms in the city of Austin, or the state of Texas for that matter, and they agreed to sponsor us. So they gave us a nice office down there, with a work station, free telephone service, free copying service, filing space, so when these cases get rolling and we end up with five or six banker’s boxes of files, we can work out of those offices. Yeah, it’s a wonderful thing to do. All pro bono. This is really, really exciting. I’m so pleased that Bill is out here now as Director of the Clinic because eventually he’s going to take over as Director of the Innocence Project and that means it’s going to go on and on. The Dean’s supportive of it; the students love it. It’s a whole new fresh challenge. I sent all summer putting together a 300-page casebook for the Innocence Project that we went through this fall. And, setting up the procedures for how we handle cases and how we supervise the work of the students and how these cases are all logged in and logged out and got all that done. So all the work is done now. It’s just a matter of keeping after it.

On Fly-fishing:

“/My wife, Jan, and I / used to go fly-fishing in Colorado at a ranch up there near Creed every summer. My father-in-law, who is now deceased, was a great fly-fisherman. He got me interested in, my wife, Jan, is a good fly-fisherwoman and the thing I…………fish to eat. I’m not a fish person, I’m a beef person. And, so I’m strictly catch-and-release. So I catch a nice trout and I’ll look at it, I’ll talk to it and carefully remove the hook and I’ll wiggle it in the water and turn him loose and watch flit away. And I enjoy that. The thing I like about fly-fishing is the same thing I liked when I played golf. It’s the aesthetic experience. Golf courses are beautiful places. Mountain trout streams are just heaven. And you’re out there all by yourself. And who cares whether you catch a fish or not. You’re just going to throw the damned thing back if you catch him. I have had more good, clear, productive thinking done just on the fly, just on the trout’s string, you know, casting and stripping and casting and stripping and pulling the fly out of the tree, you know when it gets hung in a tree. But any place else on earth, it’s just a terrific experience. It has not much to do with the fish. And not much to do with the fishing. It’s the whole environment. And, we live on a river; we have a little ranch on the San Marcos River and I occasionally go down and cast in and try to turn a bass or something. I don’t have much luck but it doesn’t make any difference.

On Jan Dawson, his wife, and their love of horses:

My wife is a lawyer, who graduated from this law school. Practiced law for a while and then decided to become a horse trainer. We bought a farm down in southern Caldwell County on the San Marcos river, about 90 acres and built a couple of barns on it and for awhile she had a pretty large boarding and lesson program. We had thirty horses boarded there and she taught 15 or 20 lessons to kids a week and adults too. And she gradually evolved from that and we started a non-profit association called the American Association for horsemanship safety because she thought the standards of instruction in the industry were so dangerous, so we’re trying to raise the people, hold themselves out as horse instructors who don’t know the foggiest thing about teaching safe horsemanship. And the thing, the key to teaching, to having a rider safe on horses is to develop what is called a balanced seat; a secure seat. So Jan invented this method of teaching beginning riders how to stay on horses by giving them exercises to loosen up their spine and their back so they kind of stick on the horse.

… Jan got into the business of being an expert witness in accident cases. And she now has a docket of ten or twelve cases all over the United States, which she testifies mainly for the plaintiff, but sometimes for the defendant, in serious horse accident cases. She just had a case out in Sacramento where the jury returned over a million dollars in damages in a horse accident case. And she was out there doing a site inspection and then she went out and had her deposition taken and then she went out and did a video deposition, which was shown at trial and everything. And the lawyer finally paid us after a long time. That’s another story. So that’s mainly what she does now. She runs this association. We do a newsletter. She does clinics in which she takes in people and teaches them, not how to ride horses, because we assume they know how to do that, but she teaches them how to teach others to ride horses in a safe manner. She’s written a book called, Teaching Safe Horsemanship, that was published in 1997, the 2nd of the book just came out within this past month and she and another person have written a book called Secure Seat,which explains this method, this exercise method, that she uses and that will be published sometime in the next couple of months. So she keeps busy with that. For two years, she and I co-taught a course here at the law school called Equine Law. And we put together about a 500-page casebook on all aspects of Equine Law and Jan and I co-taught the course for a couple of years. Well, it turns out that for a variety of reasons, it no longer fits into my curricular capabilities here. So we’re not going to teach the course this spring, but starting next fall Jan is going to teach the course to undergraduate equine science majors at Texas State University in San Marcos. So the course will go on there, just to a different audience. But it was a fun course. We had fourteen or fifteen. See it was a small course, fourteen or fifteen students each time we taught it. Some of them knew something about, the first we taught it we had fourteen students and thirteen of them grew up with horses, or owned horses, or still owned horses. And one guy said the only experience he ever had with horses was that he religiously watched the Kentucky Derby on television every year and he made the best grade in the class. I think that’s who it was at least. This year, this past spring semester, we taught the course, again about fourteen students. None of them had had any horse experience; it was just so strange. The luck of the draw, you know. But the course was equally successful both times. Jan’s a great teacher and I basically put the casebook together. She basically taught the course and I was there all the time or most of the time and I would chime in and add my two cents worth. But she basically taught. It just didn’t work out as part of the curriculum, this time. So she’s moved it to Texas State University and will start next fall.”

Related Link:
In Memoriam: Professor Robert O. Dawson, 1939-2005: