After spending 23 years in a prison cell for a crime he did not commit, Jerry Lee Evans's first order of business is a Big Mac from McDonald's. So said the man who, at a little after 2 p.m. today, was welcomed back to the free world by Judge Carter Thompson in Criminal District Court No. 5, which was packed with attorneys, family members, reporters and other interested parties who wanted to see the 20th person cleared by DNA testing in Dallas County.
"The court is going to find that by clear and convincing evidence, no reasonable jury would have convicted you in this case," said Thompson, who then ordered Evans's immediate release from custody. "It's the court's hope that your next 23 years are happier than the past 23 years." Then the judge apologized on behalf of the citizens of Texas and the court.
Evans, 47, rose to make a statement. In 1986, he was convicted of raping an SMU student in Deep Ellum based on faulty eyewitness testimony and outdated DPD witness identification procedures that have since been revised.
Evans addressed the court slowly and so softly that at times he was inaudible. He wore a light blue shirt and gray slacks and leaned on the desk in front of him, as his attorney, Michelle Moore of Dallas District Attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit, looked on.
Evans thanked the judge for releasing him. Then, he said, "It's good to be free."
He said he bore no ill will toward the court. The judge wished him good luck, and those in the courtroom stood, offering Evans a round of long, loud applause.
Twenty-three years ago, when the jury read the guilty verdict, Evans was shocked.
"My whole defense was that when the young lady see[s] me in court, she would say it wasn't me," he recounted. "Unfortunately, it didn't happen like that."
Evans said he had heard about DNA testing back in 1986 from a case in New York. It just took a while to reach Texas, he figured.
"I knew it would come one day," he said. "I just didn't know it would be 23 years. ... I'm not angry at all. It doesn't even seem like it's been 23 years. It only seems like it was yesterday. I had a lot of stuff to do in prison to keep me busy all them years."
Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins approached Evans to shake his hand. Later tonight, Watkins will appear on CNN's Larry King Live via satellite, along with Moore and two other former prisoners exonerated with DNA evidence. Watkins said that most of the defendants exonerated insist they felt no resentment toward the court, state, or witness for locking them up.
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"Surprisingly, all of the ones that we've been a part of, the defendant will express the fact that he has no anger," Watkins says. "I think that so much time has passed that they've gotten past that."
But Evans has a long way to go as he tries to work his way back into society. Other exonerees were on hand to meet Evans and offer advice, even money. Every two weeks, Dallas County exonerees meet at different locations. James Giles, the 13th wrongfully imprisoned Dallas County man given his release, even gave Evans a $100 bill.
"The only thing you have is a hope," said Giles. "This $100 is to help you out along the way."
After his trip to McDonald's, Evans plans to stay with his cousin for a while. His mom is out of state, and Evans learned that his father died some years back. Asked if he thought it was fair to learn about his father's death in such a way, Evans said: "That's the way life is. Life ain't fair. I learned that a long time ago."