The Exonerated

These 37 men spent 525 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. Then came the hard part: freedom.
Photograph by Randal Ford

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

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