Some people make history, others re-write it.
The stories of trail-blazing professors, community-leading vice provosts and a Grammy winning musician have highlighted how exceptional the women of Texas Tech truly are.
Today, we're going to tell you the story of Allison Clayton.
Clayton is making history in her own right, but she's simultaneously helping re-write it.
If you're a fan of recreational sadness – watching “who-dun-it” documentaries or listening to true crime podcasts – you might already be familiar with Clayton. She's been on more than a few podcasts and shows. Netflix and Hulu, among others, have visited campus to chat with her. In some circles she might even be considered a celebrity.
What she is, without question, is a talented attorney with a drive to set right the wrongs of the past and the skills to fight the system.
We'll get to all of that, but to get there we need to start at the beginning, because it's the only way the story makes sense.
Clayton grew up in Earth, Texas, a little town on highway 70 about halfway between Plainview and Muleshoe, 60 or so miles northwest of Lubbock.
After graduating in a class of about 25 students, she came to Texas Tech for her bachelor's degree and did so well she earned a full-ride scholarship to Texas Tech's School of Law.
Following her first year out of law school she went to Fort Worth to clerk for the Second Court of Appeals and was well on track for a lucrative career working in a big civil law firm.
“That's when I got pregnant and had my little girl, who is now 14,” Clayton explained.
Health concerns and being a mother brought about a shift in her career direction. Working 90-hour weeks – the type of grind required in big civil law practices – was no longer an option, so Clayton went and clerked for the federal judiciary in Amarillo.
The move wasn't what she had envisioned for her career, and though she says she loved her time with the federal judiciary, Clayton felt directionless.
“I was like, ‘What am I doing?'” Clayton said. “You're talking about somebody who had big law opportunities, and now I'm clerking in Amarillo, Texas.”
Despite her doubts, Clayton spent a large portion of her time in Amarillo working on federal writs.
An important part of the legal process, writs are legal documents, drafted by courts or other entities with jurisdiction or legal power, ordering a person or entity to perform or to cease performing a specific action or deed. Writs also are the legal vehicle for a person in the government's custody to get free.
It's not common for lawyers to be well versed in writing writs, which created an opportunity for Clayton.
When her daughter started school in 2014 Clayton opened her own legal practice. She found out quickly her knowledge of writs could help her find her niche.
“As it turns out, not a lot of people know how to do writs,” she explained. “It's actually pretty intuitive how it works. You have the right to an attorney at trial and you have the right to an attorney for your first level of direct appeal. After that, you do not have the right to an attorney anymore.
“So, a lot of criminal defense attorneys come up and get developed and kind of learn the ropes by taking appointed cases. You can't take appointed writ cases. There really isn't such a thing, especially in non-death cases, because you don't have the right to an attorney anymore by the time you hit post-conviction.”
The post-conviction element is where Clayton's specialty landed her. She started taking on appellate and post-conviction work in her new practice and she excelled at it.
One Friday afternoon she took a call from a number she didn't know. The call came from a court in another county. Clayton wasn't on the appointment roll for that court, which explained not knowing the number. Unusual, but not unheard of.
The voice on the other end was asking for a favor.
“She said, ‘We just got a murder conviction. We need you to take the appeal. Can I please appoint you to the appeal?'” Clayton recalled.
Clayton thought the case was worth taking so she agreed.
By Saturday, she knew it was the right decision.
“Saturday morning, I started getting phone calls,” she said. “They said, ‘You've got an innocent client, she should have never been convicted. This is a bad case. Like it's bad, bad.' And that was when I knew. It takes a lot for an attorney to come out and say, ‘This person is innocent.'”
As Clayton gathered information on the case, she came to two conclusions.
- The client was innocent.
- The case that client's attorney presented at trial limited the ways Clayton could fight the conviction on appeal.
“I knew she was going to need some post-conviction help, so I started looking into the Innocence Project of Texas (IPTX),” Clayton explained.
She reached out to Mike Ware, executive director of the IPTX, and got lucky. He told Clayton he would be in Lubbock to pick up some boxes of information for the Innocence Project and invited her to meet him at a friend's restaurant.
“So, I go to the restaurant, and I basically corner Mike for two hours,” Clayton said. “And I don't let him leave and I don't leave until I get him to say that he'll take this case as soon as I lose the appeal.”
That meeting proved to be a catalyst.
“I don't know what happened after that,” Clayton said. “I don't know if Mike just liked my spunk, or if he was just afraid of me - which would have been totally understandable - or if he called around and found out who I was and what I had done. But after that he asked me to come on board with the Innocence Project of Texas.”
The Constant Climb
Clayton not only joined the IPTX, where she now holds the title of deputy director, she resurrected the Innocence Clinic at Texas Tech's law school, joining seven other clinical programs on campus.
Her office is an old storage room at the back of the law school. She shares it each semester with four students who made it through the rigorous interview process to spend their third year of law school working with the Innocence Clinic.
At one end of the office is a rolling corkboard, like you might see in a movie. Pictures adorn both sides with strings of yarn tacked between them to link connected people. Off the top of her head, Clayton can recount details of every case she has tacked to the board. Her students can as well.
The workload is grueling. It's also personal.
As Clayton walks through the clients on the board the passion in her voice is evident. Each photo is attached to a story of injustice.
One of Clayton's happiest work memories is being on hand to watch Edward Ates walk out of prison and embrace his family. Convicted in 1998 of a 1993 murder in a small East Texas town just outside of Tyler, Ates spent two decades of his life in prison. Clayton was part of the team that proved his innocence.
“You're not going to get any higher than this day here, when we walked Ed Ates out of prison,” Clayton says, pointing to a photo on one of her shelves. “He had just been embracing with his son who was in his mama's belly when Ed went in. That's a high. You're never going to find anything else like that.”
Ates is more the exception than the rule. Even for exceptions, having a conviction fully reversed is like moving a mountain. Despite Ates' September 2018 release from prison, he has not been fully exonerated.
“Every single case is a Mount Everest, because once you're convicted, boy howdy!” Clayton said of the challenges of post-conviction work. “You know, whenever you have a degree of usefulness, and people from high school or people that you have nothing really to do with, they'll be like, ‘Hey, you're an attorney, right?' And I always tell them, ‘If you need the kind of help I can offer, you are in the deepest water possible. You are in an ocean.'”
The number of cases the Innocence Clinic is working on at any given time usually sits upward of 30. Ates isn't the only client Clayton has helped free, but he's one of very few.
By the time a case is with the Innocence Clinic, the situation is already dire.
“It's a process getting to the point where we put our name on it, and we say, ‘This man is innocent,' or ‘This woman is innocent,'” Clayton explained. “But once you get to that point, and you know you're dealing with an innocent person, it's like a dystopian nightmare. Because your job is just trying to get someone to listen to you.”
The climb takes years. Sometimes decades.
And sometimes, the summit is never reached.
Born for the Fight
Each win for Clayton and the Innocence Clinic is a re-writing of history. A client, once written into the history books as some sort of vile criminal, is re-written as a tale of injustice.
But re-writing history isn't all she's doing.
“Our mandate is to be obviously reactive,” she said, “to come back in and try to get someone exonerated if they've been wrongly convicted, but then also to be proactive and try to push for legislation to make sure whatever has been contributing to wrongful convictions doesn't persist.”
Aside from the case-by-case wins, IPTX helped secure a major legislative victory in 2017 putting limits on the use of jailhouse informants. Other legislative pushes haven't been as successful, but it's another set of fights she and IPTX willingly take on.
“We try,” she said. “At least we're doing something and saying something. Sometimes we're really effective and sometimes we're not, but we're always trying.”
It's a spirit she passes along to her students at the clinic in hopes of creating more talented lawyers with the necessary skills to carry on the fight, but even that is an uphill battle.
The prohibitive cost of law school makes working for an entity like the Innocence Project unfeasible for many graduates – it just doesn't pay well enough to pay back student loans.
“In my experience, the students who will come in here, all of them will be passionate about it,” Clayton explained. “But none of them are able to go into this line of work, because they have debt and they cannot handle it.”
But even if her students can't come straight out of school and jump into post-conviction work, Clayton is hoping part of the legacy of the clinic is to create a network of attorneys with the skills to help work the pile of cases waiting for attention.
“When I started, there were 10 people in Texas who knew how to do this work,” she said. “At this point we have like 25 or 30 people who, if they wanted to get into it, would be up to speed really fast.”
While Clayton waits on the long-term payoff of former students joining the fight, the immediate payoff from working at the Innocence Clinic is the passion and camaraderie the students provide.
“If I didn't have the students, it would be incredibly isolating because there's not a whole lot of people,” Clayton explained. “I mean, I've got my executive director and a few of the people who are staff attorneys with the Innocence Project of Texas, but I'm not in their daily lives. Having the student attorneys is so imperative to me because they come in with just this incredible enthusiasm. It just keeps you going.
“You take your Ls – and we take SO MANY Ls – but the students come in and they have all this energy and enthusiasm, and they lift you back up again. I don't know that I'd be able to do it without them. That's the thing that keeps me here in Lubbock doing this.”
The students at the Innocence Clinic may provide boosts of enthusiasm and the impetus to keep fighting but make no mistake: Allison Clayton is where she was always meant to be.
It took a few twists and turns to get her here. Life is funny that way. But now, looking back on her path, everything is clear.
“In the middle of my career, I was like, ‘What am I doing here?'” she recalled. “But when you look back, you can see the tapestry that you've been weaving. And you're like ‘Holy cow, everything was perfect.'”
From the scholarship that let her attend law school without racking up debt, to the pregnancy that changed her career direction and the days of wondering why she was a clerk in Amarillo, everything was leading to this place.
Her path isn't one that's likely to lead to riches. “Government lawyers make more than I do,” she said with a laugh. Even the pieces of fame that come her way are more about telling her clients' stories than they are about self-aggrandizing.
But the path she's traveled – the one that leads up Mount Everest with every case, only to start again if and when the top is ever reached – is uniquely hers.
She fights for people – some good people who were put in a bad spot and others who were not so good but are still innocent of what they were imprisoned for. She helps form the last line of defense against an overpowering legal system.
And she wouldn't have it any other way.
“I always tell people I was born to do this,” Clayton said. “I think that to the degree people believe in God, or, you know, a universal design of life, I certainly think I've got that going on because everything worked out so perfectly.
“And it's not like I was trying to; I was befuddled in the middle of everything. But now I step back and it's like, ‘Oh, wow. Well, that worked out pretty nicely.'”