When Innocent Prisoners Finally Go Free, Their Prosecutors Do, Too

On the trail for justice with Texas' exonerees.

In his office on a recent afternoon, Reed Prospere, a Dallas criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, pages through documents from a case he worked 30 years ago.

The case sprang from a rash of crimes that happened in the spring of 1982, when at least 60 women in Dallas area gyms, spas and apartment complexes were held at gunpoint and forced to take off their clothes and perform sex acts in what was a terrifying criminal tirade.

The victims gave a similar description of their attacker: He had striking blue eyes and wore a gray hoodie. He covered his mouth with a piece of cloth.

Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins (left) and Russell Wilson of the Conviction Integrity Unit have made their names pursuing innocence claims.
Mark Graham
Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins (left) and Russell Wilson of the Conviction Integrity Unit have made their names pursuing innocence claims.
Michael Morton was wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife. He’s now trying to get the prosecutor on his case charged with a crime.
Drew Gaines
Michael Morton was wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife. He’s now trying to get the prosecutor on his case charged with a crime.

Details

A similar crime wave had swept Kansas City, Missouri, around the same time, and women in both cities identified a man named Steven Phillips — some after police had released his image to media. Phillips had a history of peeping into apartments and revealing himself inappropriately.

Prospere's memories of the 1982 case are vague, mainly assembled by reading old documents. "It was just a no-brainer," he says. "You had multiple [IDs]."

But as the case went to trial, the actual assailant of one of the Dallas-area victims was in custody for similar crimes in Wichita, Kansas, which police documents demonstrated. The Dallas Police had concluded that her identification, which she provided after seeing Phillips' photo on television, was inaccurate, casting doubt on the other IDs. But the document never made it to Phillips' lawyers. Nor did another police report, which documented that a woman sexually assaulted in Garland identified a different attacker, Stanley Goodyear, who was wanted for similar crimes in Kansas City.

"I asked the State to turn over all exculpatory evidence," his trial attorney Edwin Sigel wrote in a 2008 affidavit. "Despite my request, I now know that the State did not disclose at least some very important exculpatory evidence."

Prospere, who came onto the case late, hasn't seen these reports before now. "That's news to me," he says, thoughtfully turning the pages. A short while later, he looks up.

"If you have a file where the victim identified somebody other than the guy we had on trial, that would be a major, 'What are we doing here?'" Prospere says. He speculates that the information never made its way from police to the prosecutors.

It's a common problem, he says. While police give prosecutors a thin file of relevant information, the complete, fat file stays in the department with documents that may be useful. As a prosecutor, Prospere made it a habit to get everything from the police, not simply what they deemed relevant. But he wasn't originally assigned to Phillips, he says, so he didn't have that chance.

In 2008, DNA testing cleared Phillips of all charges and implicated Goodyear as the true assailant. "Something obviously went wrong in Steven Charles Phillips' case," Prospere says. "I would bet my children's right arms that it wasn't in the District Attorney's office where the problems existed. ... You've got a detective somewhere that didn't bring that information to someone's attention."

Chris Stokes, who prosecuted Phillips' second trial, agrees. "If the reports you describe existed and were in the prosecution file they would have disclosed to the defense," he writes in an email. The Dallas investigating officer on Phillips' case retired in 2002, and the Garland officer who filed the report now works in real estate and barely remembers the case.

The prosecutor in Miles' case, D'Amore, claims his circumstances were similar to Prospere's. The police had reports that "were not given to the prosecution or the defense," D'Amore writes in an email.

That's why advocates need to be careful about pushing for more accountability and throwing around the term "prosecutorial misconduct," says Rob Kepple, the executive director of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. The term is used too broadly, he says, every time a prosecutor or the police makes a mistake rather than in cases of "dishonest or unfair or deceitful" conduct.

"What I've been hearing is prosecutors need to be held accountable. That implies that they've done something wrong," he says. "It does happen; there needs to be consequences. But that's a lot different than your garden-variety trial error."

He also argues that a wide swath of legal immunity is necessary for prosecutors to effectively pursue justice. It is meant "to encourage independence and courage for prosecutors to do the right thing," he says. If that immunity were ever compromised, "you're not giving Michael Morton and you're not giving Anthony Graves the right to sue prosecutors. You're giving everyone the right to sue prosecutors."

And if the pendulum ever swung too far in that direction, the "rich and powerful" could sue their way out of lawsuits while not much would change for anyone else.

Michael Morton often stresses that he is neither rich and powerful nor poor and criminal. "I'm incredibly average," he says. "I lived in suburbia. My wife and I had careers." He led a peaceful existence with his family until August 13, 1986, when Christine was murdered and he took the fall. A Williamson County jury convicted him.

But as Morton sat in prison, facing a life term, Houston attorney John Raley worked pro bono with the Innocence Project to prove Morton's innocence. Morton's mother-in-law had told authorities that his 3-year-old son had seen a "monster" hurting his mother — evidence Morton's defense attorney says he had never seen. Raley also never learned of evidence that neighbors had seen a man with a green van walk into the wooded area near the Mortons' house, or that Christine's credit card was used and her signature forged on a check after her death.

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7 comments
Debbie Zimm
Debbie Zimm

Once again we have the cases revisited. Kerry Max Cook needs to be exonerated. The story of MM is tragic, and I'm glad he is charging for reform. You can not give prosecuteors total immunity and listen to them say, "Trust me". Isolated instances don't cut it!! Imagine for a moment: You are cuffed in prison whites before the court... "I am the State of Texas and I've indicted you." "I am a prosecutor, my office will lie, cheat and fabricate evidence to convict you, guilty or not. We have a murder and our office needs a conviction. My political career is at stake and far more important than your life, liberty or pursuit of happiness. (smile) I am willing to withhold evidence and support police perjury. I am a prosecutor, untouchable, invinceable!! The State of Texas won't touch me!!" "Bow down heathen, plead guilty or accept the unchallenged power of the State!!" "You have a pathetic defense attorney. We have not given him all the evidence and we will press on to crush him and you." "The press will not report your case or do anything until you have spent minimum 25 years in prison, not enough drama!!" "How do you plea - heathen?" Well that's nice, but people are fighting back now. Tomorrow Rockwall County's 389th District court will hold the 10th due diligence hearing on this fugitive. After evading the law for 6 years and going public with documented police perjury and withheld evidence by the District Attorney... The original District Attorney (Billl Conradt) comitted suicide, but the current regime continues to fly the flag of corruption in the face of hard evidence: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1nyzlyOROVYLQSaCXMlbQixwSK_rcP9uhXMJ4tg7LV9c/edit?pli=1 The Rockwall County Disrtict Attorney's Office has pages of documented corruption, including Sumrow's conviction of theft by a public servant and the national coverage of Conradt's suicide while being served an arrest warant: Louis William "Bill" Conradt, Jr. (January 30, 1950 – November 5, 2006) was a district attorney in Texas. He became inextricably linked to Dateline NBC's To Catch a Predator, a TV series which conducted sting operations against suspected sexual predators. Local law enforcement conducted a sting operation that identified Conradt as a suspect and Dateline cameras recorded the events that followed. Conradt fatally shot himself upon encountering SWAT team members that were serving an arrest warrant at his home. So this fellow Conradt was the District Attorney in David Swingle's suppression hearing - transcript as referenced in the above letter. Do you think this guy grew a halo at work? Get real, the police searched the car illegally, falsified the police report, stood up in court, lied about almost everything and Mr. Conradt Jr. withheld the evidence and went on to commit suicide. The Rockwall DA's office supports this and plows on with the 10th due diligence hearing on this matter tomorrow. Yes, this all happened, documented yet the cover up and corruption continues.

Skepticalgirl
Skepticalgirl

Craig Watkins is one of the few prosecutors in world, not just the United States. in making sure a case has integrity than in maintaining his conviction rate. His attitude is revolutionary in the field of criminal justice, and, were more prosecutors like him, trials would be less costly and we wouldn't see sad stories like this. Apparently, the Morning News (or, as a former DMN reporter and close friend says, the "Lying" Morning News) would rather have someone like Henry Wade than Watkins. It's a shame, because he is a treasure for this county and a good example for young lawyers to follow.

Halldecker
Halldecker

Ask Reed to recall the sign in the prosecutor's offices in the 70's and 80's, he likely had one: IT'S EASY TO CONVICT THE GUILTY. IT'S THE INNOCENT WHO MAKE US WORK HARD. If he can't, ask some of the Judges who practiced back then. I had lunch with one today, he remembers it when he was a prosecutor. He also remembered nearly every prosecutor's office had it. That was the culture under the "legendary Mr. Henry Wade." All these cases are from super-tough-on-crime-Repub DA's. Win-loss percentage was all that mattered.

Debbie Zimm
Debbie Zimm

The press is simply regurgitating these high profile cases while lots of misconduct is happening right now. If it is happening in this many high profile cases, extrapolate that to all cases and the numbers are truly epidemic. It happens every day in lots of courts. Until the press reports it and the people become aware, nothing will change. The State Bar did nothing with John Bradly, but the INFORMED people swiftly voted him out of office.

wrongfully accused
wrongfully accused

Keep thinking only gang bangers who "had it coming" get wrongfully prosecuted. It could happen to you even if you are a college graduate who has held 2 licenses with the state and a clean record for 28 years.

alison hicks
alison hicks

Sad how the entire System takes there Power and Control to take innocent lives away from Freedom!

Andy Myers
Andy Myers

Not in Texas! Surely you jest! This state is a mockery of criminal justice but no one cares as long as these morons talk "tough on crime."

 
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