State of Innocents

Dallas’s DNA exonerations are setting a precedent for Texas—and the country.

IT’S TRUE. James Waller really didn’t do it. Six months ago DNA evidence proved what the convicted rapist had been saying for 24 years, and he became the twelfth man from Dallas County to be cleared by DNA since the state began allowing post-conviction testing in 2001—the most exonerations of any U.S. county. (Another convicted rapist, James Giles, was just exonerated in April, and DNA played an ancillary role.) Now even more reversals are underfoot: Dallas’s new district attorney, Craig Watkins, who came into the job promising to change how his office does business, earlier this year invited the Innocence Project of Texas—an affiliate of the New York group that has made prosecutors’ lives miserable for the past decade and a half—to review the county’s mess of cases. And so this summer, under the supervision of Barry Scheck and other Innocence Project lawyers, students from the Texas Wesleyan School of Law, in Fort Worth, will begin poring over the files of hundreds of rapes, murders, and other felonies, looking for shaky convictions (say, those based on eyewitness testimony alone) in which a DNA test might clear things up. It’s safe to say that more innocents will be found: Those twelve exonerations were set in motion after DNA tests were given to 35 convicted men, and starting next month the Innocence Project of Texas will analyze 455 cases. “If we get ten,” says Watkins, “I think that’s a telling sign of the problems with the criminal justice system. But I think there’ll be a lot more than ten.” If so, you can bet that Dallas County won’t be the only one in Texas—or the country— taking a good hard look at the way it prosecutes criminals.

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