The first thing you notice is the eyes—they all have the same look in them, the look of men accustomed to waking up every morning in a prison cell. These 37 men spent years, and in some cases decades, staring through bars at a world that believed they were guilty of terrible crimes. But they weren’t. Each was convicted of doing something he did not do. It’s hard to characterize the look in their eyes. There’s anger, obviously, and pride at having survived hell, but there’s also hurt, and a question: “Why me?”
The short answer is simple: People make mistakes. Most of these cases share a common story line: A woman, usually a traumatized rape victim, wrongly identifies her attacker. Sometimes her testimony is backed by rudimentary serology tests. Sometimes the cases are pushed too hard by aggressive police officers or prosecutors. Sometimes the accused already has a criminal record and becomes a suspect in an unsolved case in which he resembles (or is the same race as) the perpetrator. Almost every man here had a solid alibi, but cops, prosecutors, and juries chose not to believe it.
So why do we believe it now? How can we be so certain these men are innocent? DNA testing, which over the past two decades has changed the way we convict the guilty—and free the innocent. This is especially true in Texas, which has had more DNA exonerations—37 in all—than any other state (there have been 222 nationwide according to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit advocacy group for the wrongly convicted). Dallas County alone is responsible for 19 exonerations, more than every state except Illinois and New York. Unlike most jurisdictions, which discarded evidence after the appeals in a case were exhausted, Dallas County had a policy of saving it in storage lockers at the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences, in the belief that it might someday be used to reaffirm a criminal’s guilt. As for the other 18 Texas exonerations, it was mostly dumb luck that prevented the old swabs from being thrown away. (In 13 of these cases, the guilty man was eventually fingered.)
We say these men are “exonerated,” even though the word is not a term of law. Legally, a person is either guilty or not guilty, but when the governor grants a convict a pardon or the Court of Criminal Appeals ( CCA) grants his writ of habeas corpus, he is considered officially exonerated. At that point he can file for compensation from the state for his years of wrongful imprisonment. As of 2006, he can receive up to $50,000 for every year spent locked up, though compensation is limited to $500,000 (and subject to federal taxation), and to receive it an exoneree must forfeit his right to sue.
A few of these 37 have found success on the outside—jobs, families, stability—but most are still trying to figure out what to do with themselves. They lack skills they might have developed living in civilized society. Brutalized by prison, they are now bewildered by the modern age. And unlike parolees, for whom a variety of support services are available, exonerees have no state programs to help them ease back into society. They often struggle to find work. They are terrified of getting stopped by the police. They may have been exonerated, but they are not free.
The lesson from these stories is clear: We must learn to be more skeptical of eyewitness testimony, especially, it should be stressed, when the victim and the suspect are different races (almost half the black men in this group were misidentified by a white or Hispanic victim). Our eyes are imperfect instruments for documenting violent and traumatic events. As these portraits prove, they are better at looking inward.
Gilbert Alejandro, 53
Year convicted: 1990
Sentence: 12 years
Years in prison: 4
A Hispanic man raped a woman in her Uvalde apartment. She identified Alejandro from a book of mug shots. The state’s case was buttressed by the testimony of forensics expert Fred Zain, who said that a 1990 DNA test showed that semen on the victim’s clothing “could only have originated” from Alejandro. But after Zain was found to have botched forensics reports in several cases in West Virginia, the results of two other tests were reexamined; both excluded Alejandro and ultimately made him the first Texan to be exonerated by DNA. He sued Bexar County and won $250,000 (Zain was indicted for perjury, though the charges were dropped, and he died of cancer, in 2002). Today Alejandro lives in Uvalde, where he works as a janitor.
“I could never figure out why Zain said what he did. He had nothing against me. We’d never met or anything. The only thing I could come up with was money—if you testified against somebody, you’d get paid a lot of money. Not only me—he had others in West Virginia he did the same thing to.”
Michael Blair, 38
Year convicted: 1994
Years in prison: 14
A girl was raped and killed in Plano. Blair, a known child molester, was convicted, based on hair evidence and testimony from eyewitnesses who said they saw him near the crime scene. He was sent to death row. DNA tests in 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2006, and 2007 excluded him, and—after the CCA set aside his conviction this summer—the DA dismissed the case. Blair was taken off death row, but he wasn’t released from prison because in 2004 he had pleaded guilty to four charges of child sexual assault and been given four life sentences. He is incarcerated at the Beto Unit, in Tennessee Colony, and is eligible for parole in 2034.
Blair turned down a request from TEXAS MONTHLY for an interview.
A. B. Butler, 54
Year convicted: 1983
Sentence: 99 years
Years in prison: 16.5
A black man abducted a white woman from a Tyler hotel parking lot and raped her. She picked Butler out of a book of mug shots. Butler first filed for a DNA test in 1987 but