TEXAS' INCARCERATED INNOCENTS
Sharif and James Waller, (Dallas County‘s 12th Exoneree) "Since 1989, more than 200 prisoners have been exonerated by DNA evidence in the United States. The New York Times interviewed 137 of them about their lives since leaving prison - their jobs and loves, their health care and housing. The findings and dozens of audio interviews are presented." Exonerated, Freed, and What Happened Then There was a time when people joked that 'all prisoners claim innocence but none of them are'. It is no longer a joke: This year (2008), Texas became the state that has had to release more innocent people from prison than any other. Most of these innocent citizens have spent long years, many existing on death row, exposed to all the horrors and hopelessness that guilty people are doomed to live with. Thank God for DNA because that is the most common method of proving their innocence. At this time, innocent people in prison have to struggle to get DNA done. Often it takes the efforts of various innocence projects to force the system to do the right thing. It just doesn't make sense: Every person arrested should have DNA automatically included in their file before even beginning trial. Besides saving taxpayers tons of money, it would preserve the freedom of people who don't belong in prison. Although DNA is a wonderful thing for those whose cases have DNA, it does nothing for those possibly thousands like Sharif, where DNA has nothing to do with the case. How do these equally innocent people prove their innocence? The overburdened courts' current and automated methods of determining innocence or guilt is an intolerable situation for people who expect a justice system to 'prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt' before taking away a man's freedom. Kay Lee
At the April 16, 2008 Exoneration Hearing for Thomas Clifford McGowan Jr.
Dallas County‘s 16th Exoneree
"Since 1989, more than 200 prisoners have been exonerated by DNA evidence in the United States. The New York Times interviewed 137 of them about their lives since leaving prison - their jobs and loves, their health care and housing. The findings and dozens of audio interviews are presented."
Exonerated, Freed, and What Happened Then
There was a time when people joked that 'all prisoners claim innocence but none of them are'. It is no longer a joke: This year (2008), Texas became the state that has had to release more innocent people from prison than any other.
Most of these innocent citizens have spent long years, many existing on death row, exposed to all the horrors and hopelessness that guilty people are doomed to live with. Thank God for DNA because that is the most common method of proving their innocence.
At this time, innocent people in prison have to struggle to get DNA done. Often it takes the efforts of various innocence projects to force the system to do the right thing. It just doesn't make sense: Every person arrested should have DNA automatically included in their file before even beginning trial. Besides saving taxpayers tons of money, it would preserve the freedom of people who don't belong in prison.
Although DNA is a wonderful thing for those whose cases have DNA, it does nothing for those possibly thousands like Sharif, where DNA has nothing to do with the case. How do these equally innocent people prove their innocence?
The overburdened courts' current and automated methods of determining innocence or guilt is an intolerable situation for people who expect a justice system to 'prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt' before taking away a man's freedom. Kay Lee
Texas Exonerees and the Time They Spent in Prison
|James Waller||10 years|
|Andrew Gossett||8 years|
|Larry Fuller||25 years|
|Charles Allen Chapman||27 years|
|Steven Phillips||17 years|
|James Curtis Giles||10 years|
|Greg Wallis||18 years|
|Billy James Smith||19 years|
|Billy Wayne Miller||22 years|
|Donald Wayne Good||21 years|
|Eugene Henton||18 months|
|Entra Nax Karage||7 years|
|Keith Turner||4 years|
|Wiley Fountain||15 years|
|David Shawn Pope||15 years|
|Thomas McGowan||23 years|
|* Anthony Nealy||9 1/2 years|
*NOTE: We include Nealy in this list of innocents, not because he was exonerated, but because he was murdered by the state before review of his new evidence. We firmly believe that he was an innocent man.
Anthony Nealy and Sharif both spent Christmas 2006 in the Dallas County Jail (Said jail is home for some of the worst conditions in the USA and is currently being sued by the U.S. Department of Justice after Sharif organized numerous prisoners to write and tell about the conditions). Nealy was back in the Dallas Jail because he had had his hearing in Dallas earlier in December. During this hearing it was agreed that because a key witness had come forward and recanted his testimony (stating that he had been intimidated by prosecutors and coerced into making accusations against Anthony) - a new decision should be made about the situation before the 31st December.
The decision had not yet been made by the 31st of December, and therefore Anthony was returned to his cell at Polunsky and later executed on March 20, 2007. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals was responsible for examining all of the information about Anthony's prosecutorial and judicial misconduct claim and then make a final decision. The Appeals court decided that Nealy should die despite all the evidence pointing to his possible innocence; an all too familiar occurrence when it comes to blacks and the poor in the Dallas Criminal Courts.
Doug Tjapkes (pro: Chapkes) a broadcast journalist who founded Innocent/Humanities For Prisoners was present at Anthony's execution as a spiritual adviser and friend who had been instrumental in the struggle to see that justice was served in this case. Mr. Tjapkes helped free another innocent man named Maurice Carter. That story can be found in the book Mr. Tjapkes wrote entitled "Sweet Freedom - Breaking The Bondage of Maurice Carter. (ISBN # 978-1-932902-56-3)
See Also: www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/pt/slideshows/2008/01/010308_exonerated
This link is from the Dallas Morning News showing pictures of 15 of the 16 men exonerated in Dallas County since 2001. The 16th man, Thomas McGowan, along with his sister and other exonerees were present yesterday, April 16, 2008 at the Press Conference for Texas Exonerees.
(Austin, TX; April 29, 2008)
Today’s release of James Lee Woodard in Dallas — based on DNA tests showing that he did not commit a murder 27 years ago for which he was wrongfully convicted — comes just one week after Thomas McGowan was freed based on DNA results showing he did not commit the Dallas County rape and burglary for which he spent 23 years in prison. Woodard is represented by the Innocence Project of Texas; McGowan is represented by the Innocence Project. Eighteen people have now been freed based on post-conviction DNA testing in Dallas, and more than 30 people in Texas have been fully exonerated based on DNA results.
Checking in with the Innocence Project
by MATTHEW C. WRIGHT
April 18th, 2007 at 8:11 am
The formerly unprecedented review of hundreds of convictions in Dallas County continues “slow but pretty steady,” said Jeff Blackburn, director of the Innocence Project of Texas on Tuesday.
Since February, when the Project’s alliance with the new Dallas D.A. made headlines, it’s been down to the dirty work: “forms, databases, a lot of really boring crap, but it’s real necessary,” Blackburn said. “I’m not paying attention to much else right now.”
Things should pick up in May, when the summer session begins for most colleges. Law students will conduct most of the reviews. Volunteers will work through the fall. Blackburn hopes to finish next January. By then, they should “be in a pretty solid position to figure out the entire situation” in Dallas County.
Speaking of Dallas, apparently the DNA exonerations that kick-started this case review are also changing some opinions. The Dallas Morning-News editorial board yesterday called for an end to the death penalty in Texas. The potential for flaws in a system that hands out an irreversible punishment became too great in their eyes.
And that uncomfortable truth has led this editorial board to re-examine its century-old stance on the death penalty. This board has lost confidence that the state of Texas can guarantee that every inmate it executes is truly guilty of murder.
They did publish a counter-point from an associate editor arguing for keeping the death penalty. It was a less than convincing effort, at one point arguing that people actually think like this: “I need $50. I could rob the convenience store. But what if the clerk resists or pulls his own gun? I could shoot him, but that could mean a death sentence.”
Regardless, the reversal of the board as a whole was surprising, if not a total shock. Dallas is, after all, “a city that would have rooted for Goliath,” as our Molly Ivins once said.
“I can tell you it was unexpected,” Blackburn said, but “they’ve had a pretty progressive attitude now for a good while.” It’s more important to Blackburn as another data point indicating a shift in the debate. “I wouldn’t call it a true sea change in attitude yet, but I’m sensing a serious change that’s reflected in editorial boards, reflected in the amount of welcoming and warmth we’re receiving in the Legislature. These DNA cases are plowing the road.”
Or to measure it another way, Blackburn said, if five years ago, you’d claimed that Texas had convicted and possibly executed innocent people, “you were just either a nut or a communist or both.”
The next step — and the goal of the case reviews — is to convince the average citizen that these are not isolated mistakes but evidence of systemic problems with the system. From there, a rethinking of the system can begin, although Blackburn maintains a realistic outlook on the pace of change.
“What we want to do out of Dallas is give the rest of the state something to talk about … for the next 10 years,” he said.
An Editorial from dallasnews.com.
Editorial: State needs innocence commission
11:24 AM CDT on Sunday, May 11, 2008
A poignant drama unfolded in the state Capitol last week that should have been witnessed by all Texans.
Nine men at a head table in the Senate chamber looked out at a sea of faces and shared stories of lost freedom. Unjustly convicted in Texas courts, each was locked away in prison until the truth of his innocence was established, most of them through DNA tests.
The first to speak, James Lee Woodard, lost 27 years after the travesty of a wrongful conviction in Dallas County. Brandon Moon spoke of his lost 17 years. And Charles Chatman, 27 years. James Curtis Giles, 10 years. Carlos Lavernia, 15 years. Alejandro Hernandez, 13 years. Billy James Smith, 19 years. James Waller, 10 years. Thomas McGowan Jr., 23 years.
Some told their stories with passion and resolve, others with sadness. The facts chill to the bone. They reveal how scant or sketchy evidence, faulty witness identification, faulty forensics and gamesmanship by prosecutors helped railroad innocent people -- and let the guilty get away.
"It was a nightmare," said Mr. McGowan, erroneously picked out of a photo lineup by a rape victim in Richardson in 1985. "It could happen to your kids; it could happen to you."
Lawmakers in Texas must do something about that ghastly possibility. Eight lawmakers were in the audience Thursday to hear the testimonials of the exonerated men. Also attending were legal experts, judges, police brass and other law enforcement officials.
They gathered at the invitation of Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston, who has championed the formation of a state innocence commission to dissect cases of exonerated people and recommend ways to improve the system. The concept is a sound one and has been adopted by at least five states.
It's needed badly in Texas, which has 33 DNA-established exonerations to date, more than any other state. Seventeen are from Dallas County, more than in any other U.S. county.
News flashes about Dallas cases obscure the fact that local exonerations would not be achieved were it not for the sound practice of storing biological evidence in all criminal cases. No other Texas county has done that; one can only imagine how many wrongly convicted people from the 253 other Texas counties have no shot at DNA exoneration. A special commission could recommend best practices for evidence storage, among a long list of other law enforcement procedures.
Credit goes to several local officials for attending Mr. Ellis' summit and pledging to work to improve justice. They include District Attorney Craig Watkins, Republican Sen. Bob Deuell, Democratic Rep. Terri Hodge, Democratic Rep. Paula Pierson, Dallas Assistant Police Chief Ron Waldrop and Richardson Police Chief Larry Zacharias. Two judges from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals -- Barbara Hervey and Cheryl Johnson -- offered ideas.
We hope the list of participants reflects momentum for the Ellis proposal after years of indifference and hostility in the Legislature. His legislation cleared the Senate last year but was snuffed out in a House committee.
Roadblocks must be eliminated in next year's lawmaking session, and Mr. Ellis deserves robust support from the Dallas-area delegation.
In fact, a Dallas Republican should step forward to sponsor the bill in the House. That would provide the political and geographic balance to help Mr. Ellis, a Democrat, secure passage.
No county has borne more shame than Dallas County for the outrage of miscarriage of justice. No county has a greater responsibility to change Texas law to prevent tragic mistakes in the future.
Potential legal reforms
A state innocence commission could recommend best practices in these areas:
*Eyewitness identification and testimony
*Preservation of biological evidence
*Defendant's access to case files
*The right to competent defense counsel
*Ethical and legal responsibilities of prosecutors
MTWT would recommend, in related cases, DNA testing automatically done PRIOR to incarceration and trial.
The Innocent Project of Texas
Truth in Justice List of Innocent Projects
Other Helpful Links