Chains of Evidence

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

Knowing in hindsight that the man on trial is innocent adds to the shock when one sees how little evidence was needed to convict him. In most cases identification of the defendant by the victim was all it took for juries to overcome reasonable doubt. How could the victim be wrong about who attacked her?

In years past, the Dallas District Attorney's Office earned a reputation for caring more about convictions than justice. Many of the DNA exonerations date to the 1980s when legendary District Attorney Henry Wade still reigned. The county's chief prosecutor from 1951 to 1986, Wade hired top attorneys and set them loose to get the bad guys.

Former Judge Manny Alvarez was a prosecutor from 1985 to 1989. "As a prosecutor I never lost a case," says Alvarez, now a defense attorney. "It's not like we maliciously prosecuted people. I pled the ones that were weak and tried the high-profile cases." But he could win in those days taking the first 12 people who showed up for jury duty.

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.

"These people wanted to believe you," Alvarez says. "All they needed was a leader to take them down this road. It's white hat versus black hat, good versus evil."

Black and white played a different role earlier in Wade's tenure. In 1986, The Dallas Morning News exposed a 1963 memo advising Dallas County prosecutors on picking juries: "Do not take Jews, Negroes, Dagos, Mexicans or members of any minority race on a jury, no matter how rich or well-educated."

Though the majority of prosecutors and police officers were honest, Alvarez says, a pattern would emerge over time with certain people who prevaricated or fudged the rules. "Yeah, it happens," Alvarez says. "Sure it does."

In 1984, a black engineer named Lenell Jeter won his freedom after being convicted of armed robbery by a Dallas jury. His co-workers insisted he hadn't done it and national publicity led the District Attorney's Office to reopen and ultimately dismiss his case.

That was followed by the 1989 exoneration of a black woman named Joyce Ann Brown. Convicted for armed robbery, Brown was released after the District Attorney's Office admitted it made a mistake and a key prosecution witness had lied on the stand.

The office's reputation took a national hit with the 1988 release of Errol Morris' documentary The Thin Blue Line, about the conviction and death sentence of Randall Dale Adams for the 1976 murder of a police officer. Three days before he was to be executed, Adams' sentence was commuted to life.

The documentary alleged that Wade's first assistant, Doug Mulder, withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense. Adams' attorney maintained Mulder manipulated key witnesses. Mulder denied that and said he'd simply "forgotten" to turn over a witness statement pointing to another man.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ordered Dallas County to grant a new trial, and then-District Attorney John Vance dropped the charges.

Then came the '90s. Under District Attorney Bill Hill, more than a dozen innocent people were sent to prison by the Dallas County District Attorney's Office during a fake drug scandal in which confidential informants planted billiard chalk on innocent people and testified they were dealing cocaine. The District Attorney's Office had a policy of not testing the evidence unless asked by defense attorneys and withheld or "missed" tests that showed the chalk was not cocaine.

Jeter, Brown, Adams, several dozen victims of the fake drug scandal and now 13 DNA-exonerated convicts and more expected—can it be coincidence?

"I think it was a win-at-all-costs mentality," says a criminal defense attorney who worked several years as a prosecutor under Wade. He asked not to be named. "It was a culture built around Doug Mulder. He was a very powerful first assistant. It was an environment of 'anybody can convict the guilty; it takes real talent to convict the innocent.' People actually said that laughing like 'yuk, yuk, yuk,' but it's nothing to yuk about."

He does not blame Dallas police for wrongful convictions.

"The prosecutors would take control of making it all come out right," he says. "The police were just foot soldiers. They bring a case, and then it's like, 'This asshole deserves to be hammered. What needs to be said or done that's going to lead to a conviction?' The masterminds on that were the prosecutors, but they had willing witnesses to work with. I think it's just Dallas. That's just the way it works."

The mindset and practices put in place years ago, like not testing drugs unless the case goes to trial, were still affecting the process in 2000. He calls it ironic that the DNA evidence, originally preserved in part just in case an appeal led to a retrial, is now exposing the truth.

Defense attorney Peter Lesser calls the conviction of innocent defendants "a combination of errors," including pressure on law enforcement to solve and punish heinous crimes. He believes there are far more innocent people convicted than guilty people acquitted.

"I'm not ready to say the reason we have all these exonerations is that the DA was looking to convict innocent people," Lesser says. "Some didn't have good lawyers. Sometimes you need better judges. The police get away with a lot of unethical stuff. For the system to work as it should work, everybody should be operating in good faith, and that's not always happening."

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