Dallas County Does a Three-Fer in Exonerations

The number of convicts being freed after serving prison time for crimes they didn't commit keeps mounting in Dallas County, with Friday bringing a rare triple exoneration for three men wrongly accused of robbery.

On November 17, 1994, five teenagers roamed the parking lot near the Eckerd drugstore at the Inwood Shopping Center, looking for someone to rob. At the same time, another group of five sat at a nearby bus stop drinking beer and passing time.

The first group of teens robbed an elderly woman. The cops came. An eyewitnesses stepped forward. Five teens were arrested. The wrong five.

For 17 years, that's how things stood, despite the fact at least one of the young men who were wrongly accused recognized the real thieves, but decided not to snitch. And one of the real robbers watched as police cuffed the wrong guys, but he kept his mouth shut too -- costing Darryl Washington a 99-year prison sentence he didn't deserve, defense lawyers and prosecutors now agree.

Washington, Shakara Robertson and Marcus Lashun Smith, whose cases have been supported by the Innocence Project of Texas, will appear before a Dallas County district judge Friday morning, who will rule on their innocence. (The two others arrested were juveniles at the time and served short sentences in a juvenile detention center. Robertson and Smith took plea bargains to avoid stiff sentences. Washington didn't, and he's still incarcerated.)

Back on that 1994 November day, a few of the teenagers among those who would be arrested for the crime caught sight of the other group running away and dispersing. Artavias Viles, who was placed in juvenile detention for two months after the group's arrest, recognized the fleeing teenagers from around the neighborhood. He later realized they had committed the robbery for which he was punished, but kept his mouth shut because they were his friends. His case was dismissed because the witness couldn't identify him, and he figured the same would happen to the others. But that wasn't the way it worked out.

Washington recalled the day clearly at a hearing last month. A cop pulled over and asked him and his friends for identification. "All of a sudden, police cars just started coming out of every other street," Washington testified. Police walked them to the Eckerd parking lot, where an eyewitness claimed they were the robbers.

Meanwhile, Chris Love, who ran from the scene when his friend committed the robbery, peeked from the back window of his friend's grandfather's house, watching the arrest. He allowed others to take the fall for a crime he now swears they did not commit. He was 14 at the time and was afraid of getting arrested. The statute of limitations has expired for this case, but Love is now imprisoned for possession of narcotics.

All who knew the truth about the robbery kept it a secret from authorities until Houston attorney Tracey Cobb, who was a University of Houston law student, began working with the Innocence Network to investigate the case. Both the prosecution and the defense recommend that Judge Lena Levario grant the three men relief from their convictions. With that, Dallas County will present tomorrow morning what might very well be its first three-for-one exoneration.

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