Innocence Project To Review Dallas County Convictions

Larry Fuller (center), with attorneys Vanessa Potkin and Barry Scheck, is one of 12 Dallas County men whose convictions were overturned after DNA testing.
Larry Fuller (center), with attorneys Vanessa Potkin and Barry Scheck, is one of 12 Dallas County men whose convictions were overturned after DNA testing.

The extraordinary number of DNA-based exonerations in Dallas County has led to a unique partnership between prosecutors and advocates for those who may be wrongly convicted.

District Attorney Craig Watkins has agreed to allow the Innocence Project of Texas to review whether DNA tests should be done in any of the cases of 354 people convicted of rapes, murders and other felonies as far back as 1970.

Most of those requests already have been denied by trial court judges on the recommendation of former District Attorney Bill Hill. Mr. Watkins, who succeeded Mr. Hill on Jan. 1, wants to ensure that those decisions were correct, his first assistant said.

"It's just simply the right thing to do," Terri Moore said this week.

Since taking office, Mr. Watkins has seen DNA evidence clear two men convicted of rape. Those exonerations pushed Dallas County's total to 12, higher than any other U.S. county and all but two states, according to the national Innocence Project in New York.

More than 190 people have been cleared nationwide through genetic testing since the first post-conviction DNA exoneration in 1989. A 13th exoneration in Dallas County is expected over the next several weeks.

"When you hear 13 people, that's sobering," Ms. Moore said. "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."

Attorneys with the two innocence projects began calling for a thorough review of DNA applications in Dallas County last fall but had not persuaded Mr. Hill to act. Mr. Watkins, on the other hand, almost immediately began promising some kind of review.

Over the last month, he and Ms. Moore met with leaders of the Innocence Project of Texas and agreed to allow volunteer lawyers and law students access to a broad array of documents upon which to base recommendations about testing.

The students would come primarily from Texas Wesleyan University's School of Law in Fort Worth. Their selection would be approved by the district attorney's office, they would be trained by experienced screeners from the Innocence Project and they would have their work supervised by experienced lawyers.

Organizers are working to line up participants and hope to start the screening process in the next two months. The work is expected to take several months to complete, said Jeff Blackburn, who heads the Innocence Project of Texas.

Ms. Moore said the office is prepared to request testing in any case for which it is recommended. If the cost of testing becomes an issue, she said, private laboratories might be approached about providing a bulk rate to the county.

Barry Scheck, co-director of the national Innocence Project, said he had "no doubt" that if biological evidence is available and tests are performed, more wrongful convictions will be discovered.

"There just always are," he said.

A radical change

Mr. Scheck and Mr. Blackburn pronounced Mr. Watkins' decision a sea change for Dallas County.

"I think it's an unprecedented level of cooperation and unprecedented sensitivity to the possibility that mistakes have been made," said Mr. Scheck, one of the national pioneers in using DNA technology to free wrongly convicted people.

Mr. Blackburn said he hopes the Dallas project can serve as an example to other prosecutors, many of whom have offered stiff opposition since a state law allowing convicted people to apply for DNA testing was passed in 2001.

"I think Mr. Watkins is blazing a trail in Texas," he said, "and showing what a DA who cares ultimately about justice rather than the getting of convictions should do and can do."

Mr. Watkins, a former Dallas defense attorney who is the first black district attorney in Texas, has questioned whether his predecessors operated in an even-handed manner.

He said in an interview last month that the number of DNA exonerations left him wondering how many other people may have been wrongly convicted.

Ms. Moore said there was a concern that the approach to post-conviction DNA applications practiced under Mr. Hill was not as objective as it should have been.

"I don't know why it hasn't happened before," she said, "other than we fall into the them-vs.-us."

Records provided by the district attorney's office list 434 applications for DNA tests that have been submitted since April 2001. The applications were submitted by 354 people who have been convicted, some of whom had multiple cases or made more than one request for testing, the district clerk's electronic records database shows.

Judges granted tests to 32 applicants, the district attorney's office said. Of that group, 12 people were exonerated by testing, nine had their guilt affirmed, five had inconclusive results and the remaining six are pending.

The district attorney's appellate section, which handles post-conviction applications, declined to identify cases in which prosecutors opposed DNA testing.

But several lawyers familiar with Mr. Hill's approach said his prosecutors routinely opposed testing, especially in the first years after the testing law took effect.

Vickers Cunningham, a felony trial judge until late 2005, when he resigned to run for district attorney, said prosecutors were overwhelmed by the number of applications they were being asked to review.

"The process had just begun and there were no rules, and they were just being cautious," he said.

Mr. Cunningham said he supported Mr. Watkins' decision to take another look at the DNA applications. But he said most of the requests presented to him were "no-brainers" that did not meet the requirements set out by the law.

John Rolater, who was deputy chief of Mr. Hill's appellate section, declined to comment on what he described as the inner workings of the office. He is now head of the appellate section in the Collin County district attorney's office.

Welcomed by victims

The head of a Dallas victims' rights group also voiced support for Mr. Watkins' decision and said she assumes that most crime victims would also welcome it.

"They want justice, and they want the right person to receive punishment," said Kristianne Hinkamp, executive director of Victims Outreach.

Fred Moss, a former federal prosecutor who teaches law at Southern Methodist University, called Mr. Watkins' decision laudable but not without risk.

"The law-and-order types might see it as an attack on the police and the prosecutors and maybe the judges and the juries that are necessary to cause these wrongful convictions," Mr. Moss said.

"I think it might not make him terribly popular with some of the DAs that work for him and maybe some of his fellow DAs across the state and across the country."