The Innocence Mission
Because Dallas County boasts the highest number of falsely convicted men exonerated with DNA evidence since post-conviction testing began, the news that Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins has agreed to cooperate with the Innocence Project of Texas is momentous. As we reported in early January, so far 12 people convicted in Dallas County have been absolved of crimes that sent them to prison for years; a 13th is expected to be announced any day. Nationwide, 190 people have been cleared through post-conviction DNA testing.
Watkins' second-in-command, Terri Moore, told Dallas' Only Daily that "when you hear 13 people, that's sobering. And you have to say maybe it didn't happen on my watch, but it has happened. I am this criminal justice system, and I have to do my part in it." Sounds like she was the right choice for Watkins' new team.
The News reported that Moore and Watkins have agreed to allow volunteer lawyers and law students with the Innocence Project of Texas to review the cases of 345 people who have asked a judge to approve post-conviction DNA testing. Though there are 400 total requests, some inmates have asked for multiple tests.
Most cases, which go back as far as 1970, have been rejected by the Dallas DA's office. (Judges usually deny the request if the state opposes it.) The review process is expected to take four to six months. Moore promises that DNA testing will be done if recommended by the Innocence Project volunteers, even if more expensive private laboratories are needed to process the tests quickly. In the past, the District Attorney's office has opposed private testing because the laboratories were not under state control.
We've obtained the names of six men whose DNA test results are pending: Eric Stephen Young, 32, convicted for an aggravated sexual assault that occurred in 1987; Culberson Henry, 35, doing time for the sexual assault of a child in 1981; Marvin Wayne Manning, 32, convicted of committing aggravated sexual assault with a deadly weapon on February 26, 1988; Carstanva Alonzo Robinson, 41, convicted of aggravated sexual assault of a child under age 14 on November 7, 1992; James Luther Blackman, Jr., 30, convicted of sexual assault committed on December 21, 1994; and Clay Reed Chabot, 47, convicted of murder for a crime committed on April 29, 1986.
Soon, one of them will be lucky number 13 and will walk out of prison.
Allowing the Innocence Project to get involved in evaluating DNA requests made to date is an intelligent decision. Even if the results are the same, it should clear Dallas County of the dark cloud created by the number of exonerations so far.
And it will help Watkins' new team move ahead with new requests. The process of reviewing all the evidence is very time-consuming, according to Bryan Rutherford, who was appointed by former District Attorney Bill Hill in 2001 to handle the flood of appeals that followed the Texas Legislature's approval of the post-DNA conviction statute.
A lot of the requests were "no-brainers," says Rutherford, who is now in private practice, because biological evidence -- blood, skin, semen, saliva, for example -- was not an issue in their trials. "Most of the time there was no evidence and had never been any DNA evidence," says Rutherford.
But inmates grasping at straws flooded the District Attorney's office with DNA requests nonetheless; most filed "pro se," meaning they represented themselves. (The statute was a boon to criminal appellate attorneys; since most inmates pleaded indigence, judges usually appointed attorneys to represent them in their efforts.)
For each case, Rutherford had to pull all the trial documents and file a response to the request on behalf of the District Attorney's office. Sometimes he went back to the original prosecutors to get more information, so many applications for DNA tests were filed that two more attorneys were assigned to the appellate office to assist Rutherford. By the time he left the office in April 2002, 150 requests were pending.
In more than half the cases he examined, says Rutherford, there was no DNA evidence that was meaningful, like the killer who argued that a Burger King bag should be tested for someone else's DNA. The man had been convicted for pulling the bag out of a trash barrel, wrapping it around a brick and bludgeoning someone to death. The bag had obviously been handled by others, so DNA testing would not have exonerated him. "I would argue those as frivolous on their face," Rutherford says.
He estimates another 20 percent of the cases that the District Attorney's office opposed included those in which identity was not an issue -- for example, a sexual assault the victim called rape and the defendant called consensual. (After all, DNA tests don't say under what circumstances the semen got there, just that it's yours.)
Then there were the flood cases. In the mid-1970s a deluge inundated the county basement where evidence from prior cases had been stored. No DNA testing was possible on the contaminated material.
Another problem was the enormous backlog of DNA requests at the Southwest Institute of Forensic Science. In cases where DNA might have mattered, it often took Rutherford six to eight months to get an answer from SWIFS about whether the evidence was available and testable.
"There were only a handful of requests that I would say, 'Wait a minute, we need to seriously take a look at this,'" Rutherford says. One was James Waller, who was convicted of sexual assault on the word of a 12-year-old boy who identified his assailant based on his voice.
DNA testing, to which Rutherford agreed, freed Waller.
One of the most unusual requests was that of Entre Nax Karage, which I wrote about last year. It was known at the time of his 1997 trial that the DNA found on the body of his victim did not match Karage. The prosecution argued that Karage had killed his 14-year-old girlfriend after learning she'd had sex with another man. Karage's lawyer asked the judge to grant the test on the theory that if the DNA could be matched to another man with a history of committing sexual assault, there was a high probability that Karage did not commit the crime.
That is precisely what happened. Keith Jordan, convicted of sexual assault, is awaiting trial for that murder. --Glenna Whitley