Legislators, exonerees call for criminal justice reform

By Janeane AndersonJAnderson@DallasWeekly.com

In the 1980s, Charles Chatman, Billy James Smith, and James Woodard were arrested, tried, and convicted of aggravated sexual assault and murder crimes and spent a total of 70 years behind bars.

All three are now free men, but none of them were ever guilty of the crimes for which they were incarcerated.

Mr. Chatman, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Woodard represent the hundreds of thousands of men and women who are currently serving prison sentences for crimes they did not commit, proof that the criminal justice system in America is in need of reform.

To discuss the prevalence of wrongful convictions and the role DNA technology will play in increasing the number of exonerations in Dallas County and around the country,

Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson hosted a panel discussion of legislators, legal representatives and recently exonerated men at Cedar Valley College last weekend. “There is no greater failure in any part of democracy than the incarceration of the wrongfully accused,” said Congresswoman Johnson.

“We all expect this system to work, but it doesn’t. We expect that when a judge finds someone guilty he is, but that just isn’t the case,” said Dallas County Criminal District Court No. 4 Judge John Creuzot.

Saturday’s panel discussion was more than an ideological think tank that only paid lip service, said Congressman John Conyers, the first African American to chair the U.S. judiciary commission. He said the discussion was meant to generate ideas that would translate into meaningful reform. 

“If you’re rich and guilty, you’re likely to not go to prison, but if you’re poor and innocent then your chances of going to prison increase significantly,” said Mr. Conyers.

Wrongful convictions can occur for a host of reasons; however, the most common are due to eye witness misidentification, false forensic testimony, erroneous “snitch” testimonials, false or coerced criminal confessions and suppression of evidence.

“If you don’t want a faulty conviction, it would help to not be broke, not to be black and to not have an incompetent lawyer,” said Senator Rodney Ellis.

Unfortunately, many people will plead guilty for an offense because they don’t have faith in the system, choosing to take the lesser prison sentence for a crime they didn’t commit instead of placing their fate in the hands of jurors eager for a conviction, Ellis added.

DNA technology is proving to be an effective method for proving the innocence-or guilt-of men and women behind bars.

Thirty-three men have been exonerated in Texas since 1984, more than in any state in the nation. Due to its history of preserving records and evidence, Dallas County has freed more wrongfully incarcerated prisoners than any county in country.

At the helm of Dallas County’s crusade to reincorporate justice into the criminal justice system is District Attorney Craig Watkins whose partnership with the Innocence Project of Texas has facilitated the freeing of men like Mr. Chatman.

“I’m just letting innocent people out of jail,” said Mr. Watkins who has received more than an ounce of criticism for his justice reform measures. “I hope this hug-a-thug mentality catches on because I have no intention on changing my philosophy any time soon.”

But DNA testing will be less than fully effective in a system that, according to some, is flawed to the core and structured to be against the minorities and the poor.

“I am not optimistic about Texas correcting its behavior on its own,” said Innocence Project of Texas attorney Jeff Blackburn. “It’s going to take federal mandates. Texas is a national embarrassment, and it should be until it cleans up its act.”

Whereas the Innocence Project of Texas is a non-profit organization with limited funds and resources, every case cannot be investigated, resulting in innocent victims on both sides of the aisle. The community would be better served if the correct verdicts were handed down the first time, Mr. Blackburn says.

Meanwhile, Mr. Chatman and Mr. Smith say they are adjusting to life outside prison.

“I’m getting there. It’s been a long process, but I know God has His hand on my life,” said Mr. Chatman who was exonerated seven months ago after spending 27 years incarcerated for a sexual assault he didn’t commit.

Despite still waiting for a pardon from Gov. Rick Perry and being unable to find employment because he his record has yet to be expunged, Mr. Chatman says he’s glad to be a free man. However, he says his happiness is bated by the knowledge that there are still men and women behind bars who shouldn’t be.

“Although we are here, we are not the only ones,” Chatman said. “For every innocent person convicted, there is a guilty person walking the street committing crime. If that’s all we want [a conviction], then this is a poor place to be. Incarceration might not be so bad.”

Although Mr. Chatman showed restrained enthusiasm about being released from prison life, Mr. Woodard had no qualms about expressing his feelings.

“I’m excited to be out. I’m glad to be out,” he said. “I try not to look back because who wants to relive a bad dream? I don’t.” 

After Dallas DA’s death, 19 convictions are overturned

Associated Press

As district attorney of Dallas for an unprecedented 36 years, Henry Wade was the embodiment of Texas justice. Wade was DA from 1951 through 1986.

 A strapping 6-footer with a square jaw and a half-chewed cigar clamped between his teeth, The Chief, as he was known, prosecuted Jack Ruby. He was the Wade in Roe v. Wade. And he compiled a conviction rate so impressive that defense attorneys ruefully called themselves the 7 Percent Club.

 But now, seven years after Wade’s death, The Chief’s legacy is in question.

 Nineteen convictions – three for murder and the rest involving rape or burglary – won by Wade and two successors who trained under him have been overturned after DNA evidence exonerated the defendants. About 250 more cases are under review.

 No other county in America – and almost no state, for that matter – has freed more innocent people from prison in recent years than Dallas County.

 Current District Attorney Craig Watkins, who in 2006 became the first Black elected chief prosecutor in any Texas county, said that more wrongly convicted people will be freed.

 “There was a cowboy kind of mentality and the reality is that kind of approach is archaic, racist, elitist and arrogant,’’ said 40-year-old Watkins.

But some say that it is more complicated than Watkins’ summation.

“My father was not a racist. He didn’t have a racist bone in his body,’’ said Kim Wade, a lawyer in his own right. “He was very competitive.’’

Moreover, former colleagues – and even the Innocence Project of Texas, which is spearheading the DNA tests – credit Wade with preserving the evidence in every case, a practice that allowed investigations to be reopened and inmates to be freed. His critics say that he kept the evidence for possible use in further prosecutions, not to help defendants.

The new DA and other Wade skeptics say the cases won under Wade were riddled with shoddy investigations, evidence was ignored and defense lawyers were kept in the dark. They note that the promotion system under Wade rewarded prosecutors for high conviction rates.

 In the case of James Lee Woodard – released in April after 27 years in prison for a murder DNA showed he didn’t commit – Wade’s office withheld from defense attorneys photographs of tire tracks at the crime scene that didn’t match Woodard’s car.

“Now in hindsight, we’re finding lots of places where detectives in those cases, they kind of trimmed the corners to just get the case done,’’ said Michelle Moore, a Dallas County public defender and president of the Innocence Project of Texas. “Whether that’s the fault of the detectives or the DA’s, I don’t know.’’

 John Stickels, a University of Texas at Arlington criminology professor and a director of the Innocence Project of Texas, blames a culture of “win at all costs.’’

“When someone was arrested, it was assumed they were guilty,’’ he said. “I think prosecutors and investigators basically ignored all evidence to the contrary and decided they were going to convict these guys.’’

A Democrat, Wade was first elected DA at age 35 after three years as an assistant DA, promising to “stem the rising tide of crime.’’ Wade already had spent four years as an FBI agent, served in the Navy during World War II and did a stint as a local prosecutor in nearby Rockwall County.

He was elected 10 times in all. He and his cadre of assistant DAs – all of them white men, early on – consistently reported annual conviction rates above 90 percent. In his last 20 years as district attorney, his office won 165,000 convictions, the Dallas Morning News reported when he retired.

In the 1960s, Wade secured a murder conviction against Ruby, the Dallas nightclub owner who shot Lee Harvey Oswald after Oswald’s arrest in the assassination of President Kennedy. Ruby’s conviction was overturned on appeal, and he died before Wade could retry him.

Wade was also the defendant in the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. The case began three years earlier when Dallas resident Norma McCorvey – using the pseudonym Jane Roe – sued because she couldn’t get an abortion in Texas.

Troubling cases surfaced in the 1980s, as Wade’s career was winding down.

Lenell Geter, a Black engineer, was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to life in prison. After Geter had spent more than a year behind bars, Wade agreed to a new trial, then dropped the charges in 1983 amid reports of shoddy evidence and allegations Geter was singled out because of his race.

In Wade’s final year in office, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of a Black man, Thomas Miller-El, ruling that Blacks were excluded from the jury.

Cited in Miller-El’s appeal was a manual for prosecutors that Wade wrote in 1969 and was used for more than a decade. It gave instructions on how to keep minorities off juries.

A month before Wade died of Parkinson’s disease in 2001, DNA evidence was used for the first time to reverse a Dallas County conviction. David Shawn Pope, found guilty of rape in 1986, had spent 15 years in prison.

Watkins, a former defense lawyer, has since put in place a program under which prosecutors, aided by law students, examin hundreds of old cases where convicted criminals have requested DNA testing.

Of the 19 convictions that have been overturned, all but four were won during Wade’s tenure. In two-thirds of the cases, the defendants were Black men.

“I think the number of examples of cases show it’s troubling,’’ said Nina Morrison, an attorney with the Innocence Project, a New York-based legal group affiliated with the Texas effort. “Whether it’s worse than other jurisdictions, it’s hard to say. It would be a mistake to conclude the problems in these cases are limited to Dallas or are unique to Dallas.

 Former assistant prosecutor Dan Hagood said The Chief expected his assistants to be prepared, represent the state well and be careful and fair.

 “Never once – ever – did I ever get the feeling of anything unethical,’’ Hagood said. He denied there was any pressure exerted from above – “no `wink’ deals, no `The boss says we need to get this guy.’’’

 But Watkins said those who defend The Chief are “protecting a legacy.’’

 “Clearly it was a culture. A lot of folks don’t want to admit it. It was there,’’ the new DA said. “We decided to fix it.’’

Judge tosses sex crime convictions of DNA exonoree
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