texasmonthly.com: How did you get turned on to this story?
Michael Hall: For a long time I have been wanting to write about how courts use “junk science”—testimony from experts in questionable quasiscientific fields covering, for example, blood spatters, gasoline pour patterns, or hair comparisons—to convict people in criminal cases. I had lumped DNA in with those sciences, mostly because of the Houston Police Department crime lab scandal. The more I researched DNA, though, the more I realized it is as scientifically sound and accurate as you can get, and the HPD debacle was an aberration. The Steven Phillips angle was kind of serendipitous—he had been writing us for years but sent a flurry of letters to four of us on staff in April, and I got around to reading them about the time I was beginning the initial reporting for the main story.
texasmonthly.com: Being a writer, I’m guessing your first love isn’t science. After all the research and lab visits, how strong do you feel your understanding of DNA testing is?
MH: Every time I began an interview with one of the scientists at Orchid Cellmark or one of the other professors or experts, I would think I knew what I was talking about. And then three or four minutes into the next interview I would find myself blindly scribbling notes, trying to figure out what the hell this person was talking about. It took a while—including reading most of a DNA textbook—before I finally got to where I understood it, or at least could explain a kind of CliffsNotes version to someone else.
texasmonthly.com: This isn’t much of a question, but I’m curious as to why chewed-up tissue paper was used to get Phillips’s DNA sample?
MH: When I visited him at the Stiles Unit, I wanted to buy him a Coke and take the half-drunk can with me to the lab—that’s the dramatic way the cops do it. But I couldn’t get near him during the interview—he was separated from me by a glass window (he had gotten into a fight with someone who had stolen his typewriter, which is Phillips’s lifeline to the outside). But I got him to agree to send me some saliva, and we figured the best way was spitting onto some paper. The chewing was his idea.
texasmonthly.com: What was it like visiting the DNA lab in North Texas. What was the most interesting thing you witnessed?
MH: The lab was very clean and ascetic, with a bunch of hardworking young people (mostly women) looking through microscopes and putting samples in little test tubes. It was all very unglamorous and, as the analyst working with me, Jody Hrabal, said, “repetitive.” In fact, it didn’t really get interesting until we put everything into the computer and it spit out the graph showing Phillips’s DNA profile. It was a graph with tall, jagged peaks—each one blue, red, green, or black—and little boxes with arcane numbers in them, all signifying the uniqueness of this profile. I don’t know, it was kind of dramatic in its own little way, after all the repetitive, boring, detail work of the previous two days.
texasmonthly.com: Judge Mark Nancarrow wrote that “overwhelming evidence existed of [Phillips’s] guilt.” But there seems to be overwhelming evidence in favor of Phillips getting a Chapter 64. In the article there’s speculation on why Judge Nancarrow denied Phillips’s DNA test, but I still feel baffled by his decision. How frustrating, if at all, is it to work on an article and not understand the judge’s motivations to deny the test?
MH: On one level it’s frustrating, because only one person can give us the answer to that question. But on another level, as a journalist, it’s kind of liberating, because I can speculate in a hopefully informative way. “Maybe it was this . . . or maybe it was this.” One more way in which there is freedom in ignorance.
texasmonthly.com: How did Phillips feel about the judge’s decision?
MH: I think he wasn’t that surprised. He feels like the courts will do what they can to reinforce the initial verdicts.
texasmonthly.com: Did Texas Monthly attempt to get the vaginal swab in Phillips’s case tested?
MH: No, there’s absolutely no way they would have given it, since we’re not cops or otherwise authorized people.
texasmonthly.com: DNA testing in the judicial process seems to still be in its nascent stages, and goofs such as the HPD lab have delayed DNA testing’s credibility. What do you think needs to happen for DNA testing to become more widely accepted and used?
MH: I think it’s really a process of judges and prosecutors becoming more comfortable with it. DNA evidence truly is revolutionary, yet it’s still—in the court system—a teenager. It’s like anything else that causes a sea change in the way things are done—cars, CDs, (I’m guessing) fingerprints.
texasmonthly.com: Is there any compensation or apology issued by the justice system for falsely accusing someone?
MH: Yes, the guy can get compensation, which is $25,000 per year. The guy generally won’t get much of an apology from anyone, though the DA in El Paso, Jamie Esparza, apologized to Brandon Moon at his final hearing before being set free after seventeen years for a rape he didn’t commit.
texasmonthly.com: Are there any updates to be made in the Phillips case?
MH: No. His case is before the Court of Criminal Appeals, and there’s no telling how long it will be there.
texasmonthly.com: You seem to gravitate toward stories about pursuing justice. Is there a particular reason? What message do you hope your story on DNA conveys?
MH: I’m drawn to stories about outsiders, some of whom are “outside” for good reason (their art, say, or their personality) and others who are out there for really wrong reasons. I think everyone is attracted to stories where you say, “That’s just not fair. What the hell is going on?” And for me, as a generally mild-mannered and law-abiding citizen who thinks we have a pretty good criminal justice system, those stories are even better, because I’m dealing with generally good people—lawyers and judges—who, because of their background and training as well as the machinations of the institutions they serve, do things that ultimately lead to unfair results.
The message is: The criminal justice system is full of humans who make very human, sometimes costly mistakes, and we have this essential piece of our humanness, DNA, that can clean it all up. We should be using DNA more than we are now, and I think it’s just a matter of time before DNA is used to try to solve almost every crime, whether committed today or in 1982.