Dallas County Exonerates Two More Men, 30 Years After the Crime They Didn't Commit

Categories: Legal Battles

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Raymond Jackson and James Curtis Williams (right) at today's hearing with their lawyer, Julie Doucet
This morning, two men stood in the same courtroom where they were convicted of aggravated assault and sentenced to life in prison for a rape and shooting that happened almost 30 years ago. This time, both were smiling, as they were one step closer to exiting the criminal justice hell that consumed the last three decades of their lives.

Raymond Jackson and James Curtis Williams donned suits and were surrounded by friends, family and fellow exonerees, as Judge Susan Hawk, with her declaration of relief from conviction based on actual innocence, granted them entrance into the ever-expanding brotherhood of Dallas County exonerees. This morning's double exoneration hearing comes just weeks after the exoneration of three men for one crime.

With dozens of men having come before them and about 10 sitting behind them in the audience, it's clear that systematic flaws that have lead to so many wrongful convictions. Under District Attorney Craig Watkins, Dallas County has been famously proactive in freeing the wrongfully convicted. But what's less readily apparent is how deep the problem runs.

"I know for a fact" there are other innocent men in prison, Williams said to the crowd gathered after the hearing. "You will not get the proper representation if you are poor," he added. "A lot of them had to cop out to cases that they knew they was innocent on because they didn't want to face the jury."

He and Jackson never backed down. Both had been released on parole in the past two years. "We knew in our heart and we thank God," Williams said.

Judge Hawk couldn't find words strong enough for a suitable apology for what the men had faced.

"To say I'm sorry is not enough," Hawk told the men. "I hope that you have full and happy lives." The full courtroom cheered after the judge shook their hands. This was Hawk's fourth exoneration hearing in her nine years on the bench, she said. All four cases were originally heard in the same 291st district courtroom in front of Judge Gerry Meier.

Former public defender Michelle Moore worked with Watkins' Conviction Integrity Unit from its 2007 creation until last year. When she left her position, Julie Doucet took over. Moore said Jackson's and Williams' cases were initially rejected, until the Conviction Integrity Unit revisited them sometime around 2007 during an intense review of hundreds of cases.

"There was a lot of arguing about this one," Moore says. "Finally, we found some evidence to test." The biological evidence not only determined the innocence of Jackson and Williams, but it also revealed two men believed to be the actual perpetrators, both in prison for other crimes. Marion Sayles and Frederick Anderson have since been indicted for attempted capital murder.

As has become tradition on exoneration mornings, District Attorney Watkins addressed the courtroom when the hearing was over. "We are doing something wrong with our criminal justice system and we need to fix it," Watkins said. He addressed the two men, adding, "I am sorry the criminal justice system was not working for you."

Jackson wasn't mad, only thankful. "I hold no grudge against the victim. I'm just thankful that they had DNA and they kept ours," he said.

But accountability in this case, as in many similar cases, is tough to nail down.

"I think the real thing was just getting you convicted, and they didn't care whether you was innocent or not," Jackson said. If a jury sees a distraught victim and she identifies the men in court as having done the crime, Williams said, it's pretty tough to convince a jury otherwise. He added that the jurors in their cases were all white.

"Back then the system was different," Jackson said. And while the system "back then" put him in prison, he's sure glad the system now cleared his name. Williams had a different explination: "See, this is a miracle."

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18 comments
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tim_lebsack
tim_lebsack

I'll try to help the next time I sit on a jury.

trudat
trudat

With all this continuous evidence that the legal system can and will make serious mistakes, what I can't understand is the continuous solid support for the death penalty.  And I won't even mention the money that can be saved and the respect for the legal process that could be gathered by taking a more moral position and abolishing the death penalty.  The fact is that the death penalty (once carried out) is irreversible even though any number of mistakes might have led to it as a legal remedy. But Texas is always near the top in death penalty deaths. I wonder what would happen if Texas was for once near the top in justice.  What would that even mean???...

Dallas_Joe_Schmo
Dallas_Joe_Schmo

You'd be suprised about Texas.  While Texas leads in executions, the criminal code is written vary favorably to defendants compared to many states.  Texas provides many protections that other states do not (specifically with interrogations, warrants, and detaining individuals).  Also, because of someone's off-hand decision 30 years ago to keep biological evidence, Texas (Dallas county specifically) leads the nation in exonerations.   Other counties and states can't prove innocence because all the evidence was destroyed.  Many counties and states still destroy evidence immediately after pleas and/or after a period of time to allow for appeals to run.  Thus, there is no way for those held in prison to actually convince anyone they aren't the guy. While we have a reputation (much deserved in many respects) for being too tough on crime, not many people know that you have a greater chance at freedom and justice here than you do in many other places.All of this attention has caused Texas prosecutors to pretty much go after the 100% guilty people (video, blood on hands, confession types) when seeking death, that don't lend themselves to any kind of innocence claim.  The system deserves to be watched closely, but you can rest easier knowing the people going to death row these days are the ones that are supposed to be there.  Did a mistake happen in the past? Almost certainly.  But we aren't living in 1975 anymore. 

Larry
Larry

When is a reporter gonna grow a pair and do 2 things.

1    name the prosecutors in these cases and their present jobs.

2   Properly lay blame on that bloodthirsty rat Henry Wade.

Toddbox1
Toddbox1

I spent 22 years on the run from the lies of a drunk off-duty plain clothes cop that attacked me and I was charged with felonious assault on a police officer. I finally wanted to be an Engineer for the Secret Space Program and had a lawyer ( my niece) look into it. I got in front of a judge after 22 years ( I appeared on my own). The judge said "There is no Probable Cause where's the Probable Cause?" Which means I never should have been arrested nor charged. I was still charged a $610 fine and never was apologized to. Just you are free to go. This lie destroyed my life. Just imagine what I could have accomplished for mankind if I had not spent 22 years in the shadows. From age 22 to 44.This occurred in New York on Long Island in the Mineola Court system in the Town of Hempstead.   In this article one of the men freed after 30 years of jail said "'They were not interested in innocence or guilt just a conviction". He is absolutely right. The color of your skin has nothing to do with it either because I am white.   From what I have observed in my life and I keep a very close watch on this. At least 40% of the people charged and convicted are innocent of the crimes they are convicted of. At the least 40%. Americans are 5% of the worlds population but we have 25% of the worlds prisoners.   In Florida where I live 1 in 3 people between the ages of 18 and 59 have been railroaded through a corrupt system here. Florida "come on vacation leave on probation" is the rule of the day.    Time for a big change in the American Criminal Injustice System. A very big change.

trudat
trudat

I agree with almost all of your comment.  However, the color of your skin must have something to do with it because the greatest part of those convicted in this nationb by the "injustice system" are people of color.  This is true even though the majority population is still the white population.

Guest
Guest

So Sayles and Anderson were in prison for other crimes. I'm sure the victims of those "other crimes" certainly don't mind the half-ass approach to crime fighting that the "old" Dallas County D.A.'s office worked under.

I'm sure they, just like Ken Anderson and John Bradley, would tell the world that they did nothing wrong if anyone tried to hold them personally accountable for their failure to get the actual criminal off the street and keep them from victimizing other people.

trudat
trudat

Victims should want justice for everyone involved just like everybody else should want justice for this society. The detainment and conviction of the wrong person should not make a victim feel any better about the situation. This is an example of what is wrong with the "injustice" system.  Many times, law enforcement officials don't care about apprehending the right criminal as long as the get someone who can be blamed for the crime.  The reasoning is that at least it looks like law enforcement is doing its' job - although the whole system is actually failing the very people it is supposed to serve.

And then (on the other hand) there are those socially irresponsible or socially sick folk who don't care that things are not working like they are supposed to work - until they (themselves) become victims of the way things work...

billmarvel
billmarvel

The whole purpose of justice is not to nit-pick whether someone is actually guilty of this or that particular crime but to determine if they are guilty-ish in a general sort of way. If we're going to be holding DAs to higher standards, then we're never gonna get "them" off the street, whoever them is. 

Cheshyre
Cheshyre

You sound guilty-ish to me.

TravelingCriminal
TravelingCriminal

 And how do you know they were convicted of crimes that took place in Dallas County??

Dallas_Joe_Schmo
Dallas_Joe_Schmo

I'm pretty sure he's saying that the victims, no matter where they might be, would have preferred the prosecution do a better job.

However, as is point out in the article, the prosecution is not at fault for these.  This was before DNA, and the victim pointed them out in trial:

" If a jury sees a distraught victim and she identifies the men in court as having done the crime, Williams said, it's pretty tough to convince a jury otherwise." 

What's a prosecutor to do when the victim comes to court and IDs the men, under oath, in open court??

Dallas_Joe_Schmo
Dallas_Joe_Schmo

I'm not arguing with your assertions that eyewitness testimony is unreliable.  However, you also can't jump to the conclusion that there was a "half-ass approach" when you don't know whether the prosecutors in this case did or did not "look for corroborating evidence, paid attention to the alibis (if one was offered), etc. etc.  All of which might have happened and still resulted in the same men getting wrongly convicted.  Look I know "one bad apple spoils the bunch" and in Dallas county that might = 30+ bad apples.  However, as we've learned throughout this process, MOST of the time it's not some conspiracy to get conviction rates up, evil prosecutors, or just plain laziness.  It truly often is a case where people are chosen out of a lineup, later brought to court, and identified by the witnesses in open court under oath.  It's usually accompanied by the defense not preparing and not putting up and alibis or the defendants pleading guilty simply because they are charged with a serious crime and looking at 50+ years.Do witnesses get misled over time? absolutely.  But that doesn't mean that it's always the prosecutor's fault.Are prosecutors more aware these days? yes. All I'm saying is be glad they are there and how about you go on with your life thinking that most of them "old" or new are/were generally good people with good intentions who are being blamed for things out of their control.  As for the ones who lied, cheated, and were generally worthless, believe me when I tell you that they are rare.

Guest
Guest

It's been very interesting to me hearing Jennifer Thompson-Cannino speak. She was raped in North Carolina, and through a series of faulty line-ups, she came to identify a man named Ronald Cotton as her attacker.

By the time she got to court, she says she was absolutely certain that Cotton was the man who victimized her. In her memories, his face was who she saw. When subsequent DNA testing exonerated Cotton, she says she accepted the validity of the tests, but the man who those DNA tests pointed to looked wholly unfamiliar to her. She didn't recognize him at all. And even though she knows it's not true, in her memory, she apparently still sees Cotton as the perpetrator.

It's especially interesting as Thompson-Cannino was a criminal justice student at the time she was raped, and she says she made a point to really study her attacker's face during the attack so she could identify him later. And yet, she still didn't pick the right guy (though the true attacker's mug shot was apparently not shown to her during the investigation).

trudat
trudat

The significant thing about eye witness victims and eye witness testimony is that they are not 100% infallible.  An eye witness can make a mistake.  Eyes that witness something can be misled.  This should be taken into consideration when these types of decisions are being made.  Just because someone was there and actually saw "it" does not mean that what they saw was actually reality. 

Guest
Guest

We don't know how the victim came to identify these men as the perpetrators. In previous exonerations in Dallas, the victim only came to (falsely) identify the wrongly convicted after the police or prosecutors had settled on a "likely" perpetrator.

If she only became convicted that these were the men after the police or prosecutors offered them up to her as the likely perpetrators, then they share at least some degree of fault (depending on the specifics of the identification).

The police and prosecutors can do a lot wrong before a case gets to the identification stage, and they can do (and have done) quite a bit to taint such identifications.

billmarvel
billmarvel

Eyewitness identification is notoriously unreliable, even in rape cases, and especially in rape cases in which the accused is a member of a racial minority whose members tend, in the eyes of some victims, to all look alike. So the answer to your question, "What's a prosecutor to do?" is that the prosecutor is supposed to have done his work before the victim comes to court and IDs the men under oath. He is supposed to have looked for corroborating evidence, to have viewed the process with some skepticism, to have paid diligent attention to the story and alibi offered by the accused. But the office of DA is usually seen as a springboard to higher elective office, so it's important to ramp up that conviction rate. For the same reason prosecutors are often loathe to turn over exculpatory evidence to the defense. What politician wants to be seen as soft on crime?  

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