As a free man for the first time in 14 years, Dale Duke tightly embraced his tearful mother. His every move followed by a swarm of cameras, the wrongfully imprisoned man, now 60, exited the packed courtroom of District Judge Susan Hawk with his parents, lawyer and supporters from his church. Wearing thick tortoise-shell glasses, a brown wool blazer and matching tie, the exoneree looked more like a lawyer than a former inmate as he walked through the Frank Crowley halls.
Duke and his mother didn't let go of each other. Their eyes were wide at the frenzy of attention swarming around them -- this newly freed man, one more to join the ranks of the wrongfully imprisoned from Dallas County.
"I'm gonna see what the Lord has in store for me," said Duke, a member of Believers Chapel in North Dallas. Asked how she's holding up, his mother said, "Just holding up period." With one arm around her son and another clutching a bouquet of yellow flowers, she alternated between smiling and holding back tears.
In 1992, Duke was indicted by a Dallas County grand jury on the charge of aggravated sexual assault of a child -- his stepdaughter, who was 7 at the time. Six years later, she admitted she had lied when she accused him of the assault, but a judge did not believe her recantation. Recently, the District Attorney's Office determined there was evidence that the child's grandmother thought she was lying all along. This additional evidence, not previously presented at trial, provided a basis for bringing the case in front of a judge once again. This is the fourth Dallas County exoneration without DNA evidence and the 26th exoneration overall.
Duke's unwavering persistence in maintaining that he was innocent landed him in prison and finally got him out. Duke pleaded no contest to the allegations to avoid jail time while also not admitting guilt. But when he refused to 'fess up during therapy as part of his probation, he was sent to prison, his lawyer, Robert Udashen, said.
"If we hadn't found a Brady violation, this never would have happened," he said, referring to the withheld evidence.
Duke's stepdaughter, now 26, was not in attendance. Dee Childress, who was her Sunday school teacher, said that at a hearing last week, his stepdaughter testified that she had lied as a 7-year-old, then turned toward Duke and said, "I'm so sorry."
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Udashen had been working on the case since 1998, when Duke's stepdaughter recanted. "It's a very great day," he said. "It's nice to finally be successful with it. He's hung in there and continued to fight for his freedom."
Duke is the first exoneree since the change in leadership of the District Attorney's Office Conviction Integrity Unit, which reexamines cases where there may have been flaws leading to wrongful incarceration. Mike Ware, who helped launch the department in 2007, resigned four months ago and returned to private practice. He was replaced by Russell Wilson, who has a background in criminal defense.
Duke's was also the first exoneration hearing that Johnny Pinchback attended since his own in May. After Judge Hawk declared Duke innocent, Pinchback stood solemnly in the back of the courtroom. Only five months ago he was the object of the post-exoneration media circus, but today reporters and photographers passed him with little notice. His hearing was lined with previous exonerees, but he said many of them didn't receive prior notice about today's exoneration, so he was the only one able to attend.
"I take it one day at a time," he said. "I can't catch up so I'm catching in."