Chains of Evidence

How did Dallas convict so many innocents? With faulty eyewitnesses, sloppy police work and overzealous prosecutors.

A half-hour after her boyfriend left her Irving condo on an icy night in January 1988, Marilyn M. heard pounding on her door. Thinking her boyfriend might have had car trouble, Marilyn opened the door and confronted a stranger who pushed his way into her home and dragged her to the bedroom, dousing the lights as he went. From 8:45 p.m. until 1:20 a.m., the man sexually assaulted Marilyn in the darkened bedroom, leaving only after she feigned sleep.

Marilyn later described her attacker as 5-foot-8 and stocky with a light complexion, sandy-brown hair, a scraggly beard, a scar on his cheek and several tattoos. He chain-smoked Marlboro Reds. During a brief period in the lighted bathroom, Marilyn studied a tattoo on his shoulder blade that depicted a woman with large eyes and cascading hair. The day after the assault, Marilyn worked with police to create a composite picture of her rapist and the tattoo.

Five months later, Gregory Wallis was buttering a piece of toast when Irving police came to his door and arrested him for aggravated sexual assault and burglary.

Veteran defense attorney Michael Ware is working with Texas Wesleyan School of Law students to review requests for DNA tests from 400 people convicted in Dallas County.
Mark Graham
Veteran defense attorney Michael Ware is working with Texas Wesleyan School of Law students to review requests for DNA tests from 400 people convicted in Dallas County.

"You're crazy," Wallis said. At his arraignment, Wallis was baffled. "I was carefree," he says. "I thought I didn't have anything to worry about. They couldn't make it stick. [Rape] is just not in my nature."

At trial Wallis learned that Irving police had shown Marilyn five different photo lineups with no success. Then an informant in the jail saw a photo of the tattoo and identified Wallis.

Marilyn picked Wallis out of the last photo array and then identified the tattoo on his arm as that of her attacker. Wallis' tattoo showed a woman with long hair, but it was on his arm, not his shoulder blade. The scar on his face was not on his cheek but on his forehead. No physical evidence linked him to the crime.

"The only time I had seen this lady was when I went to court," Wallis says. The trial lasted three days; the jury took an hour to convict him.

Sentenced to 50 years in prison, Wallis left his wife and 2-year-old son behind. He had served 16 years when he learned from another inmate of a new law that would allow Wallis to seek a DNA test.

It took nearly three years, but a judge finally assigned a public defender to his case. A sophisticated DNA test on Marlboro cigarette butts at the scene proved that Wallis could not have been the rapist. After serving 18 years for a crime he didn't commit, Wallis was released.

Since 2001, when the option of discretionary DNA testing became available to inmates, 13 men in Dallas County have been exonerated. Given sentences as long as 50 years to life, these innocent men struggle with lost years and the legacy of prison etched on their souls.

Around the country, DNA testing has exonerated more than 200 people so far, and Dallas County has far more exonerations than any other county in the nation.

"Dallas is ground zero for criminal justice change," says Jeff Blackburn, an activist lawyer, founder and director of the Innocence Project of Texas, a nonprofit consortium of attorneys and law students who aid those who claim they have been falsely convicted. It's modeled after the Innocence Project founded by lawyer Barry Scheck at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York.

"[Dallas County's] small enough to make it work but big enough to make a difference," Blackburn says. "The only thing that's rare about Dallas is we have this objective benchmark."

The benchmark is the result of two factors: The county's private lab, the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences, had to preserve the evidence to maintain its accreditation, Blackburn says. And in case an appeals court gave a convicted felon a new trial, the Dallas District Attorney's Office wanted to maintain evidence to try to convict the accused again.

"This is a perfect storm of accidental facts," Blackburn says. "I can tell you, if 20 years ago the Dallas DA's Office thought those convictions would be endangered they would never have gotten into this system of saving samples."

Blackburn says wrongful convictions happen for three reasons: eyewitness misidentification because police do not use objective procedures; failure of prosecutors and police to turn over exculpatory evidence, which he calls "pervasive"; and bad defense attorneys.

But the problem goes much further than Dallas County.

A study of 290 non-capital cases tried in four cities in 2000 and 2001 was released this spring by Northwestern University. It concluded that juries got the verdict wrong in one out of six criminal cases. One-fourth of those defendants pronounced guilty by juries were actually innocent. Judges had an even higher rate of false convictions; 37 percent of those deemed guilty by judges after "bench trials" were actually innocent. The study also found that judges and juries agreed on the outcome in only 77 percent of the cases.

In 35 Dallas DNA cases approved for tests so far, 13 men were found innocent. What happened in the trials of these men? (One, Eugene Henton, pleaded guilty and received a four-year sentence rather than go to trial.) How did the system go so horribly wrong? The Dallas Observer obtained the trial transcripts of 10 cases—all sexual assaults—and combed through the proceedings to see what they have in common.

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