Beyond DNA, Difficult Tests for the Justice System

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"I recognized that I could be angry, resentful and react to people, or I could look for the overall purpose and lesson and apply it to not only my own professional life but teach it. And I chose the latter path," he told the Texas Tribune, frankly admitting the lessons he'd learned.

Bradley and Watkins approach the cases from opposite directions — Bradley focuses on ensuring that the guilty stay locked up; Watkins works to ensure the innocent are freed. Neither approach is foolproof. A week after the Tribune published the article, the Observer talked with Bradley, who said he told the Tribune everything he had to say about the two cases that gave him pause. He was unwilling to say much more when discussing exonerations in general and Dallas County policies. "I'm not some sort of national spokesperson," he says. As to whether he's changed any policies within his office, he says he's dealing with cases "the same way we always have, by following the law and making sure there are opportunities to test the guilt of people."

While Bradley's not entirely opposed to non-DNA exonerations, he finds they're "much more subject to manipulation." He said as more DNA cases are resolved and there are fewer of them, organizations like the Innocence Project must take on new kinds of cases. "We have an Innocence Project, therefore there must be innocent people," he says, leading up to his point that "just as we sometimes wrongfully convict a person, sometimes we wrongfully exonerate a person."

Watkins has his own take. "John Bradley got caught with his hand in the cookie jar," he says of the two cases Bradley fought against re-examining. "They had their appellate process," Watkins says, "and [since 2001] Texas gives you the ability to request DNA testing ... and largely those requests were just conveniently denied. So for someone to say that 'Yeah, we've been doing this,' is laughable.

"It's less about the media attention; it's more about our role as prosecutors," he says.

The morning after Thanksgiving, Pinchback's Cedar Hill home was packed. The exoneree's brother cooked bacon and eggs while the rest of the extended family waited, some in pajamas, enjoying a relaxing holiday morning. A little after 9 a.m., Pinchback returned from running a few errands. After nearly 27 years in prison, he can't shake the early-rising routine. His wife, Sandra, stepped out of the bustling house to get her nails done. The next day, the couple, who met shortly before Pinchback went to prison and got married while he was still incarcerated, would exchange vows at the Marriott hotel on Stemmons Freeway.

They might have had a proper ceremony sooner if not for a confluence of events in 1984. "Follow me, or I'll shoot," a man threatened two teenage girls walking home in Oak Cliff, then walked them to a field, raped them and fled on foot. In a police photo lineup days later, the victims both identified Pinchback as their attacker. Their identification was the linchpin for a judge to sentence Pinchback to 99 years in prison for aggravated sexual assault.

But for a 2007 letter Pinchback sent to the Innocence Project of Texas that was followed up persistently by his friend Charles Chatman, who had been exonerated in 2008 after serving nearly 27 years for a similar crime, Pinchback would still be walking the halls of state prison.

"I knew why," Pinchback says, of the reasons he was wrongfully incarcerated. "It was the way I was living. ... I wasn't a saint." Before he went to prison, he led a fast life of stealing, drugs and lies that would likely land him in prison at some point. But though he wasn't an angel, he also wasn't a rapist.

He's put both pasts behind him now. "My immediate family and my exonerated brothers — that's it for me," he says.

The only DNA evidence that remained in Pinchback's case was pubic hair preserved in the rape kit that tested positive for semen that belonged to someone else. Testing DNA found on the hair is a costly procedure, and Chatman paid to have the evidence tested expediently.

Since Pinchback would likely be behind bars without Chatman's help, he plans to offer the same to others he believes are innocent. He knows of one person who stands to benefit from the same type of DNA test that freed him, so he'll pay for this man's testing.

After the holidays, Pinchback says he will also start visiting people in prison he believes are innocent. "They say we're the best bullshit detectors," Pinchback says. Having gone through the mill themselves, the exonerees are highly sensitive filters.

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Leslie Minora