By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Poor legal representation is a major reason the innocent get convicted, says Blackburn of the Innocence Project of Texas. In many cases the defendants are indigent and can't afford experienced lawyers.
"Every lawyer who practices at the courthouse knows this dirty little secret," Blackburn says. "You don't get appointed [to represent indigent clients] if you aggressively defend clients. You won't be paid enough to fight aggressively. Judges are typically byproducts of the prosecutor's office, and no judge ever got re-elected acquitting people."
Blackburn is on a crusade for Texas to build up a strong public defender system. "These are horrible human stories we are talking about. Being in prison for something you didn't do is hell on earth. All these DNA cases do is show us how wrong the whole system is."
Moments after Sharon G. stopped her minivan at a Garland stoplight on February 23, 1999, a strange man opened the door, pointed a gun and told her to drive. It was about 9:30 p.m., and Sharon G. was on her way to visit a friend.
The man directed her to a vacant lot. He forced her to give him oral sex, then pushed Sharon G. to the ground and raped her.
The stranger then told her to drive back to the area where he'd gotten into the car, climbed out and disappeared on foot.
Sharon G. described her attacker as white, about 6-foot-3 and on the heavy side, 200 pounds at least. He had been wearing a dark T-shirt under a brown tweed-type sport coat, dark baggy jeans and black tennis shoes. He had not been wearing glasses, had a large scar on the right side of his face and smelled bad. He had rough hands and had been wearing a distinctive ring in the shape of Texas.
A Garland police officer heard about the assault as he started his shift that night. He drove around the area and about 2 a.m. slowed down when he saw a man rummaging in a vehicle at an apartment complex. The man looked up "like a deer in the headlights," the officer said, then shut the door and entered one of the apartments.
The next morning, Garland police talked to the man, Andrew Gossett, 39. The apartment belonged to his girlfriend's daughter. Gossett lived with his parents.
After Gossett's parents gave police permission to search their home, they confiscated a dark T-shirt, baggy camouflage pants, a blue plaid flannel shirt, black tennis shoes and a brown winter coat.
A Wal-Mart stocker who had just gotten into the company's management training program, Gossett gave a voluntary statement, saying he'd spent the night with his girlfriend.
No physical evidence linked Gossett to the crime: no fingerprints on the car, no seminal fluid. Police found no tweed coat, Texas-shaped ring or gun. But a detective handling his first sexual assault put together a photo array. Sharon G. picked out Gossett, who had five DWIs and a conviction for methamphetamine distribution.
His defense attorney located a surveillance tape from a nearby convenience store that showed Gossett entering about 10:15 p.m. wearing a white T-shirt, glasses and camouflage pants, not jeans. He stood all of 5-foot-8 and weighed 140 pounds. He was wearing glasses; Sharon G. said her attacker didn't have on spectacles.
But Sharon G. insisted Gossett was her rapist.
On February 10, 2000, Gossett was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
Over breakfast at a Garland diner, Gossett looks small and pensive.
He says talking to police led to his own destruction. "It hurt me more than it helped me," Gossett says. "They put words in my mouth. I didn't ask for an attorney."
Gossett passed a polygraph and voluntarily gave police a DNA sample, but the test was "inconclusive."
In 2001, Gossett wrote to the Innocence Project in New York. One of their attorneys told Gossett a more sophisticated test was available.
On an icy day in January, Gossett went to the Dallas County courthouse and learned that the test cleared him. New District Attorney Craig Watkins was there to shake his hand and apologize.
Watkins has since apologized to more exonerees. He lobbied the Dallas County Commissioners Court to get funds to hire veteran defense attorney Michael Ware to focus on the 400 people who have petitioned his office for post-conviction DNA tests. Ware is teaming with 30 students from Texas Wesleyan School of Law, under the aegis of the Innocence Project of Texas, to examine each case to see if testing could confirm or deny their guilt.
Gossett has still received no compensation or a pardon.
Though Gossett has reunited with his girlfriend, they have no money and no place to live. He can't get hired because his pardon hasn't come through. Blackburn sent him $1,000, but a doctor's bill took $500.
"Seems like I'm still paying for it," Gossett says.
Greg Wallis spent 18 years in prison as a result of his wrongful conviction for the rape of Marilyn M.. "I missed my boy growing up," he says. "I lost my wife, my first love." They managed to reconcile and are now back together, but like all the exonerees, Wallis carries with him the memory of harrowing experiences in prison.