Dallas district attorney steps up scrutiny of cases where DNA can't prove
For 16 wrongly convicted defendants in Dallas County, DNA testing was the
key that set them free after years – even decades – in prison. Now,
because of the doubt those exonerations raised, Dallas prosecutors are
taking an unprecedented look at convictions in which DNA evidence cannot
conclusively prove guilt or innocence.
And that may lead to a significant departure from the way prosecutors
traditionally have responded to claims of innocence by inmates. DNA cases
"are the very tiniest tip of a gigantic iceberg of injustice in Texas,"
said Jeff Blackburn, an Amarillo civil rights attorney who also serves as
chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas.
The decision to pursue non-DNA cases broadens a review of convictions
begun a year ago by Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins and the
Innocence Project of Texas amid a wave of DNA exonerations. Fred Moss, a
law professor at Southern Methodist University and a former federal
prosecutor, said the effects of Mr. Watkins' work with the nonprofit legal
clinic could ripple through courthouses across the state.
By letting defense advocates search for misfires in the judicial system,
Mr. Moss said, Mr. Watkins has opened a Pandora's box.
"And now," he said, "it's 'Oh, my God.' "
Other prosecutors, he said, could feel pressure to review old cases, and
further revelations could add to public skepticism of the justice system.
Dallas County already leads the nation in DNA exonerations. By agreeing to
investigate innocence claims in non-DNA cases, Mr. Watkins has enhanced
the possibility that exonerations will rise.
Mr. Watkins, a career defense lawyer before his election in 2006, said he
is convinced that systemic problems he describes as "rampant" in the DNA
exonerations provide a valuable road map for further investigations.
The number of cases in which untested DNA evidence is available continues
to diminish with time. But problems such as faulty identifications, inept
defense attorneys or evidence suppression still may be found in non-DNA
cases. Soon, Mr. Watkins' year-old conviction integrity unit and the
Innocence Project may take on even more non-DNA cases that most
prosecutors routinely resist.
Some prosecutors balk at what is unfolding in Dallas, John Bradley, the
Williamson County district attorney in Georgetown, Texas, said reviews of
claims are time-consuming and seldom result in confirmations of innocence.
Instead of forming conviction integrity units, he said, district attorneys
should teach their prosecutors to scrutinize cases from the start.
"I don't mean to minimize the harm to those people" exonerated by DNA, Mr.
Bradley said. "[But] I guarantee you a lot more people were killed in
drunk-driving accidents and car wrecks and in wars than were falsely
Claims of innocence made by prison inmates – without an agreement between
the district attorney and the inmates' attorneys – typically have
The Texas judicial system does not track the number of post-conviction
innocence claims filed. But since the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
first recognized "actual innocence" as a claim in 1994, it has ruled on
fewer than 30 contested cases. The Austin court exonerated inmates in five
non-DNA cases – each involving victim recantations. Three of those cases
were sexual assaults from Dallas County.
More cases could find their way before the court as Dallas County
prosecutors and the Innocence Project continue their investigations. Their
unique partnership originally focused on whether 350 inmate requests for
DNA testing were appropriately rejected during the tenure of former
District Attorney Bill Hill.
Mr. Watkins' prosecutors have reviewed 149 of the defendants' requests for
testing that were originally denied, and granted 17. 1 of the 16
exonerations comes from this review, which confirmed the guilt of 2
others. Other cases are still under investigation.
More than 20 of the reviewed cases fell into a new category. In these
cases, DNA cannot provide an answer – but further investigation might
produce new evidence. The DA's office already has agreed that 8 of these
cases merit further investigation.
The Innocence Project declined to name the eight defendants, saying that
is its policy in cases under investigation.
Prosecutor Mike Ware, who oversees the conviction integrity unit, said
despite the partnership, the DA's office will conduct a separate
investigation into whether inmates deserve a new trial. Sometimes, Mr.
Ware said, the DA's office might acknowledge that a defendant deserves a
new trial because the case was tried unfairly, but still questions his
DNA cleared Clay Chabot in the rape of a murdered Garland woman. Mr.
Chabot was convicted mainly on the perjured testimony of his
brother-in-law, who DNA tests show was the rapist. Prosecutors agreed to a
new trial, but still believe Mr. Chabot was involved in her 1986 shooting
In another pending case, prosecutors have opposed Ben Spencer's bid for a
new trial in a 1987 fatal robbery. But state District Judge Rick Magnis
recently ruled that Mr. Spencer actually was innocent of the crime because
of problems with eyewitness testimony. The Court of Criminal Appeals,
which must rule on Judge Magnis' recommendation, has not rendered a
Mr. Blackburn of the Innocence Project said he doesn't think the district
attorney's stances on the Spencer and Chabot cases will affect how open
prosecutors are to other claims of innocence. While prosecutors are
willing to work with the Innocence Project, he said, they are
"Anyone who thinks Dallas County is a Mecca for people who want to get
out," Mr. Blackburn said, "is mistaken."
Still, Dallas County is developing a very different reputation from the
days when many defense attorneys claimed that prosecutors put conviction
rates above justice.
Dallas County is unlike any other when it comes to listening to inmates'
pleas of innocence, especially when DNA testing is available, said Jason
Kreag, an attorney for the Innocence Project in New York, another
independent nonprofit legal clinic. He noted that the district attorney's
office didn't even require a formal DNA test request in this month's
exoneration of Thomas Clifford McGowan Jr. "The Dallas district attorney's
office has been remarkably responsive and quick to find the evidence,
which is often the biggest challenge," Mr. Kreag said.
"And that obviously makes Dallas different from many jurisdictions."
(source: Dallas Morning News)