Chains of Evidence

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

Her attacker had removed a screen, broken a pane and unlocked a window. He left muddy footprints on the carpet near the window but no fingerprints.

Two days later, an officer came to her apartment with a photo array of six black males. She studied the photographs and after about 10 minutes picked one: Larry Charles Fuller, who lived about a mile from Carol's apartment and had a criminal record for an armed robbery. He'd done his time and had been released in 1978.

Carol then asked if she could see a more recent picture.

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.

A week later, a detective went to the home of Fuller and his girlfriend. He asked Fuller if he could take his picture. The detective didn't explain what the charges were; he simply said the picture could exclude Fuller. Fuller agreed.

The detective showed Carol another photo array. Both arrays included Fuller. She again picked Fuller.

"I was very slow in identifying him," Carol said at an examining trial, "because I didn't want to identify an innocent man."

Carol had told police she didn't remember her rapist having facial hair; Fuller had a beard.

An artist, Fuller, 32, went to trial on August 24, 1981, before Judge Marvin Blackburn.

Fuller's girlfriend, a bank teller, testified they'd gone to bed about 1:30 a.m., then woke and had sex early in the morning. There was no physical evidence against him. Tests of the rapist's semen showed that the rapist could have been Fuller and 20 percent of the black male population.

Fuller took the stand in his own defense and insisted he wasn't guilty. None of that overcame Carol's identification. Fuller was convicted. Prosecutor Jim Jacks asked for a maximum sentence.

"He cannot be rehabilitated, because the first step to being rehabilitated is to admit that you have made a mistake and that you need help," Jacks said. "He has not done that. He will not do that, apparently." Sentence: 50 years.

Fuller maintained his innocence. After years of appeals, his request for a post-conviction DNA test was granted by Judge Lana Myers. Announcing the dismissal of the case against him in 2006, Myers apologized on behalf of the state of Texas to Fuller from the bench.

"I expected bitterness from him," Myers says. "And he didn't have that. He came back with forgiveness. He said God had a plan, and he never lost his faith. It had made him strong, and he held no grudges. I was really having a hard time trying to conduct the hearing."

Crying, Myers got down from the bench and hugged him.

The knock woke 35-year-old Billy Smith from sleep on the couch in his sister's apartment in 1986. At the door, the apartment manager asked to talk to Smith, so he stepped out on the second-floor walkway. The manager asked Smith if he'd heard anything unusual that night. Smith said no and went back to bed, only to be awakened by police pounding on the door and shouting, "Open up!"

They arrested Smith for aggravated sexual assault, taking with them some of Smith's clothes and a kitchen knife.

The manager's common-law wife had been standing below to identify Smith, who had just moved in. She would testify that Smith confronted her in the complex's laundry room, dragged her to a vacant field and raped her.

As a young man, Smith had used drugs, stolen a car and served time for robbery. But he'd started going to Alcoholics Anonymous and church and was getting a job the next day.

Even Smith's parole officer testified on his behalf, saying he didn't find the accuser credible and that the manager's statements didn't match the accuser's. Only the victim's identification linked him to the crime.

Smith says his court-appointed attorney did little for him.

"He never once went to the scene of the crime to get any information," Smith says. "My attorney never talked to my sister or alibi witnesses.

"The day I got my verdict he had some kind of doctor's appointment," Smith says. Nor did the attorney attend court when Smith was sentenced to life in prison.

Smith served "19 years, 11 months and 7 days" in prison. His mother and six other close family members died while he sat in a cell. Even after a DNA test proved Smith had not deposited the semen in the victim, Dallas prosecutors fought his release, saying they needed another sample from the victim to be sure.

Smith now is 55, a muscular man with a close-cropped head and beard showing flecks of gray. A leather eyeglass case in the pocket of his blue shirt is tooled with the name Al-Amin, the name Smith took after converting to Islam in prison in order to survive the anger, the gangs and his own bitterness.

"After the first two years, I contemplated suicide at least once a year," Smith says.

When he was released in July 2006, Smith didn't have bus fare. No one would give him a job; he still has received no monetary compensation. Smith isn't bitter at the loss of 20 years of his life, but he can't get excited about being out of prison.

"Something has been taken from you," Smith says. "I know now how easy it is to be accused of something."

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