Beyond DNA, Difficult Tests for the Justice System

Freeing the wrongfully convicted through science was the easy part. Now what?

Watkins has his own take. "John Bradley got caught with his hand in the cookie jar," he says of the two cases Bradley fought against re-examining. "They had their appellate process," Watkins says, "and [since 2001] Texas gives you the ability to request DNA testing ... and largely those requests were just conveniently denied. So for someone to say that 'Yeah, we've been doing this,' is laughable.

"It's less about the media attention; it's more about our role as prosecutors," he says.


The morning after Thanksgiving, Pinchback's Cedar Hill home was packed. The exoneree's brother cooked bacon and eggs while the rest of the extended family waited, some in pajamas, enjoying a relaxing holiday morning. A little after 9 a.m., Pinchback returned from running a few errands. After nearly 27 years in prison, he can't shake the early-rising routine. His wife, Sandra, stepped out of the bustling house to get her nails done. The next day, the couple, who met shortly before Pinchback went to prison and got married while he was still incarcerated, would exchange vows at the Marriott hotel on Stemmons Freeway.

Dale Duke, one of the dozens of wrongfully convicted men freed from prison in Dallas County.
Mark Graham
Dale Duke, one of the dozens of wrongfully convicted men freed from prison in Dallas County.
Johnny Pinchback, one of the dozens of wrongfully convicted men freed from prison in Dallas County.
Mark Graham
Johnny Pinchback, one of the dozens of wrongfully convicted men freed from prison in Dallas County.

They might have had a proper ceremony sooner if not for a confluence of events in 1984. "Follow me, or I'll shoot," a man threatened two teenage girls walking home in Oak Cliff, then walked them to a field, raped them and fled on foot. In a police photo lineup days later, the victims both identified Pinchback as their attacker. Their identification was the linchpin for a judge to sentence Pinchback to 99 years in prison for aggravated sexual assault.

But for a 2007 letter Pinchback sent to the Innocence Project of Texas that was followed up persistently by his friend Charles Chatman, who had been exonerated in 2008 after serving nearly 27 years for a similar crime, Pinchback would still be walking the halls of state prison.

"I knew why," Pinchback says, of the reasons he was wrongfully incarcerated. "It was the way I was living. ... I wasn't a saint." Before he went to prison, he led a fast life of stealing, drugs and lies that would likely land him in prison at some point. But though he wasn't an angel, he also wasn't a rapist.

He's put both pasts behind him now. "My immediate family and my exonerated brothers — that's it for me," he says.

The only DNA evidence that remained in Pinchback's case was pubic hair preserved in the rape kit that tested positive for semen that belonged to someone else. Testing DNA found on the hair is a costly procedure, and Chatman paid to have the evidence tested expediently.

Since Pinchback would likely be behind bars without Chatman's help, he plans to offer the same to others he believes are innocent. He knows of one person who stands to benefit from the same type of DNA test that freed him, so he'll pay for this man's testing.

After the holidays, Pinchback says he will also start visiting people in prison he believes are innocent. "They say we're the best bullshit detectors," Pinchback says. Having gone through the mill themselves, the exonerees are highly sensitive filters.

"We know, we veterans," Pinchback says. When he begins the visits, he'll "sit and talk — and listen," constantly on the lookout for contradictions. "Tell me again, man," he'll repeat.

While a few exonerees have already visited others in prison, Christopher Scott, who was wrongfully convicted of murder and exonerated in 2010, is starting a nonprofit called House of Renewed Hope to help organize a system of prison visits to others who may be wrongfully incarcerated. Scott is already looking into an aggravated robbery case of a man in the prison system's Coffield Unit, where he was held. Like his own case, Scott says, "It's non-DNA too, so I've got a whole lot of groundwork. ... It's hard to beat those types of cases.

"With non-DNA, how can you tell if they're telling the truth or not?" Scott says. "But those are the cases I want, because they're more challenging for me. I've been there and done that. ... With non-DNA you've got to pay close attention because you don't want to miss nothing. The littlest mistake can cost the guy the rest of his life in prison."

Discussions of cases that are part of Scott's program will take place at meetings of the Texas Exoneree Project, co-directed by Dr. Jaimie Page, an assistant professor of social work at Texas A&M University in Commerce, who runs the program along with exonerees Scott and Chatman. Moore, the former Dallas County public defender, will act as the supervising attorney, providing cases for the exonerees to explore. Several exonerees planned to attend a private-investigator training course.

"These guys have the best bullshit radars on the face of the planet," Moore says. "They can smell a rat from a mile away." They all know how to investigate a case because for years in prison, most of them worked on their own, Moore says. "It's perfect. Plus, they need a purpose and this is what most of them committed their purpose to be — to help others in the same position."

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20 comments
Toni Bugg
Toni Bugg

Even if someone that was Wrongly Convicted is finally Exonerated & ends up being compensated financially, where does that compensation justify all the time that was stolen from an innocent person? Texas pays out $80,000 per year of incarceration, when it should be 1 million at the least.

Grace Means
Grace Means

There was no DNA in the case of my son, (1981) he, a friend and a white girl was in the Black area smoking marijuna. The cops stopped him and told her to say that they raped her (twice each) or she would go to jail for drugs. Of course, she said that they raped her; they did take her to Parkland where the doctor (white doctor) from the hospital came to trial and said that the person had no secretion, no scratches, no foreign hairs, and no sign of sex...still one white juror hung the jury. The DA promised the other boy (who had no record and visiting here from Detroit) to roll over on my son and he could go back to Detroit on probation, where my son had misdemeanors. After 7 months being held downtown with no release he decided to say that they had; with the help of his lawyer, he plea bargained. I have tried so hard to get help from the Innocent Project and without DNA, they closed the case. I need help and after all these years we are still fighting this case...He was 18 then and now he is 52...Nothing is ever done to the Eye Witness or the Police that made the original charges on any of the Proven Innocent.

Bruse Wane
Bruse Wane

I am currently working with a highly respected Private Investigator on a NON-DNA related Exoneration Case similar to some of the findings in the article. A very compelling case that need some immediate attention. Could someone point me in the right direction? my email is antong_lucky@yahoo.com Thanks in advance!

Guest
Guest

Hard to believe that a guy like Bradley, who helped a murderer stay free for six years by opposing DNA testing in the Morton case, would talk about non-DNA cases being open to manipulation.

Given that he had evidence in his files for over twenty years (Bradley joined the Williamson Co DA's office in 1990, at which time he began opposing Morton's release. He had access to exculpatory evidence that was never turned over by his then-boss, but he made no attempt to correct the record until over 20 years later when he couldn't hide anymore) that should have been turned over at Morton's trial and he expressly worked to protect a man who murdered at least two people from having to face justice, he's very clearly a master manipulator himself.

I don't know why John Bradley worked so hard to make sure Mark Alan Norwood stayed free. You'd think a DA would rather put a murderer in prison, but I guess that's not how Bradley rolls.

Texasdave60
Texasdave60

congrats on the cover, Leslie....I am scared to death to tell my story of how Im being screwed by the TDCJ Parole folks, yet I'd like to talk with you about it since you have the guts to explore. Thanks. email for phone number.

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ralphost
ralphost

You wanted you got a police state. All those cleared with dna show the percentage of wrong convictions. both with and without dna. Locked up for brownie points by the cops and the DA.

Show me one DA who will admit he has ever been wrong. Then think how many times you have had to change your mind on your job.

It a bad driver damn it was the hard drive failing. Except someone gos to jail life forever ruined.Even when fixed not one day can be returned. The hardest thing in life to do should be to put a man in jail.

Not the easiest like it is now.

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TDKS FBT
TDKS FBT

Don't they usually get tons of money once freed?

hdmi
hdmi

There will be more and more cases like this throughout the country. I hope DNA finally frees those that are innocent. I feel for these men because they have to rebuild their lives again at no fault of their own.

Justice before glory
Justice before glory

Toby Shook was one of those 'win at all costs' prosecutors. His only interest was getting featured on another episode of American Justice. His cases should be examined closely for examples of prosecutorial misconduct.

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Vengtoo

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james
james

prosecutors are required to turn over ...evidence but they don't always....those prosecutors are guilty of crimes and they should do the time they caused to be done.if you were my prosecutor and i was wrongly convicted and did 20 years being brutalised and raped...do you think i might think you owed me...everything....

Grace Means
Grace Means

Bruce exactly what are you trying to do? I also need help with a NON-DNA case of Exoneration...Michelle Moore admitted clearing the easier cases with DNA...those that were just set up and left out there with a terrible record and no options of freedom.

Sheila Berry
Sheila Berry

No, they don't get tons of money. Only 27 states have compensation for the wrongly convicted; most of them have caps on how much a person can get and place numerous roadblocks in the process. Most exonerees cannot sue because the prosecutors who put them in prison are immune from civil lawsuits.

MM
MM

What price do you place on not being able to watch your children grow up, never spending another day with your mother, or facing the fear of being shanked or raped every day in prison when you are an innocent man?

 
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