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

On the trail for justice with Texas' exonerees.

When Innocent Prisoners Finally Go Free, Their Prosecutors Do, Too
Mark Graham
"My life was taken because of malicious acts by a prosecutor," says Richard Miles. "I can't just let that go by."

The outcome was already determined, the stories already written, but the cameras and the recorders were out anyway, waiting for the judge to say the words. He was about to declare Richard Miles actually, technically, legally innocent of a 1994 murder, a shooting at a Texaco station near Bachman Lake. A higher court had already declared him innocent. There was nothing left to do but a little criminal-justice theater.

The reporters in attendance wondered what would make this day's story unique among the wave of stories about innocent prisoners. Miles was about to provide their answer.

A thin man with a strong jawline and determined face, Miles listened to the judge's apology and then, before he addressed the crowd, leaned toward his lawyer.

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.

"Can we hit them with a bomb?" he asked. "Is it a good time to hit them with a bomb?"

"Richard, you're a free man," he remembers his lawyer saying. "You can say whatever you want to say."

He stood, encircled by reporters. After some thank yous, he lit the fuse: "I want to say that me and my lawyer, Cheryl Wattley, we'll make a formal complaint against Thomas D'Amore for prosecutorial misconduct," Miles said, referring to the lawyer who prosecuted him. "My life was taken because of malicious acts by a prosecutor. I can't just let that go by."

As he spoke, several of the 33 innocent men freed in recent years by Dallas County watched from the gallery, dressed as if for mass. At least seven of their cases had contained "official misconduct," mostly exculpatory evidence that wasn't disclosed to defense lawyers, according to Michigan and Northwestern University's National Registry of Exonerations. Misconduct contributes to 42 percent of exoneration cases nationally, those researchers say.

It's a problem that's had a particularly profound effect in Texas. In 91 criminal cases between 2004 and 2008, Texas courts found that prosecutors withheld evidence, made improper arguments or committed other misconduct, according to a report by Veritas Initiative, part of a national Prosecutorial Oversight coalition. But only one prosecutor was disciplined in that time period by the State Bar of Texas. (His license was suspended for two years.)

As Miles and his fellow exonerees know well, prosecutors are virtually immune from accountability. They're protected from civil action, and the statute of limitations for prosecuting them generally runs out before a prisoner even goes free. Miles could file a grievance with the State Bar, the organization charged with attorney discipline. But there's a statute of limitations on those complaints, too.

"The pendulum is at its very farthest point in its swing toward maximizing prosecutorial power," says Scott Henson, a policy advisor for the Innocence Project of Texas and the author of Grits for Breakfast, a Texas criminal-justice blog. "We're at the point where all these grants of power to prosecutors have started to create, basically, false positive errors in the system where we're falsely accusing people," he says. And all venues for remedy — the courts and the State Bar, basically — are "neutered and unable to deal with it."

There's a movement to try to reverse the neutering. Advocates, defense lawyers, academics and even some prosecutors argue that prosecutors shouldn't walk unscathed, at least not from the most severe disasters of jurisprudence. Statutes of limitations should be lengthened, they say, and prosecutors sued or charged with crimes more easily. Or, they say, more exonerees should take the path of Michael Morton, who was exonerated of his wife's murder last year and is now using a rare legal tactic to pursue charges against his prosecutor — a case that could provide a road map for future exonerees.

Who knows: Miles may even try that route himself. For now, though, he's starting with a State Bar grievance, which he says he'll file any day.

"Unless there is accountability in place, there is forever going to be false imprisonment," he says. "Somebody has to try. ... It's not about me winning or failing, it's just about me doing it.

"You kidnapped me," he says of his prosecutor. "You aided to this kidnapping."

It started for Miles in May of 1994. An Oak Cliff boy, raised by a pastor, Miles was walking to a friend's Dallas apartment when a police helicopter's spotlight split the night sky. Suddenly officers were on top of him, cuffing him.

They drove him to a Texaco station near Bachman Lake, where a witness was waiting. That witness, Marcus Thurman, had just watched a black man walk up to a car at the Texaco station and fire a 9 mm into the driver's side window, killing one person and injuring another. The shooter had fled in a white Cadillac and, after a short drive, left the car on foot.

The shooter was wearing shorts. Miles was wearing pants. But Thurman ID'd him as the gunman anyway.

A prosecutor named Thomas D'Amore worked Miles' case. An expert witness testified that Miles had levels of chemicals on his right hand that were consistent with handling a gun. The witness mentioned casually that this could also be from batteries or handcuffs (although she didn't lend much credibility to that argument). But the case mostly relied on Thurman's testimony.

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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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