This week's feature tells the story of Debbie Jones, a Richardson woman who was raped and robbed at knifepoint in 1985, when she was 19.
Soon after the crime, Jones picked Thomas McGowan out of a photo lineup. He was convicted of burglary and sexual assault and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. Jones tried her best to move on with her life. But when DNA evidence exonerated McGowan in 2008, she suddenly had to live with the knowledge that her mistaken identification had put an innocent man in prison. At the time, her real rapist hadn't yet been found -- and when he finally was, the statute of limitations to prosecute him had passed.
Jones agreed to speak with the Observer about her experiences, the first time she's been interviewed at length. But one of her main concerns was McGowan: She wanted to make sure nothing in the article hurt or upset him. Although she never could have imagined it, the two have tentatively formed a friendship; today, they occasionally speak at events together about wrongful conviction and exoneration, sometimes accompanied by Mike Corley, who was a detective on Jones' case.
"We'll always always be forever bound by this," Jones says.
Jones and McGowan first met about a year after the exoneration, in a sometimes-awkward meeting at Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins' office. For McGowan, the chance to meet Jones face-to-face was transformative.
"I got the chance to meet the woman that said that I had did this," he explains. "The best part about it was I got a chance to meet her, talk to her. ... Meeting her was a good chance to meet and face my accuser and really just look at her in the face."
Although he'd been angry at her at times, he says, in the end, "I was looking at everything in a spiritual manner. God brings you face to face with your accusers." Besides, he adds, "I was just so glad to be out. I knew I had to forgive people."
The meeting was a moment that fellow exoneree Steven Phillips says many wrongly incarcerated men long for. Phillips was convicted in a string of 11 sex crimes in the Dallas area after being identified by one of the victims, a North Dallas woman who was raped in her home by an intruder with a gun. (Police believe the real perpetrator was a man named Sidney Alvin Goodyear; he died in prison in 2008.)
"I think it's rare when that happens," he says of exonerees meeting their accusers. "Honestly, I dream about something like that. You kidding? It's huge."
It's not that he wants an apology, he says. "I don't ask -- I ask for nothing. I'm good, you know? We had our day in court with the exoneration." But for him and many other exonerees, he says, meeting their accusers after a conviction allows them to know, finally, that the victim acknowledges their innocence. "How many times have I thought, 'Oh my God, she's wrong about me and she doesn't even know it.' It just tears at your soul, man."