This morning, two men stood in the same courtroom where they were convicted of aggravated assault and sentenced to life in prison for a rape and shooting that happened almost 30 years ago. This time, both were smiling, as they were one step closer to exiting the criminal justice hell that consumed the last three decades of their lives.
Raymond Jackson and James Curtis Williams donned suits and were surrounded by friends, family and fellow exonerees, as Judge Susan Hawk, with her declaration of relief from conviction based on actual innocence, granted them entrance into the ever-expanding brotherhood of Dallas County exonerees. This morning's double exoneration hearing comes just weeks after the exoneration of three men for one crime.
With dozens of men having come before them and about 10 sitting behind them in the audience, it's clear that systematic flaws that have lead to so many wrongful convictions. Under District Attorney Craig Watkins, Dallas County has been famously proactive in freeing the wrongfully convicted. But what's less readily apparent is how deep the problem runs.
"I know for a fact" there are other innocent men in prison, Williams said to the crowd gathered after the hearing. "You will not get the proper representation if you are poor," he added. "A lot of them had to cop out to cases that they knew they was innocent on because they didn't want to face the jury."
He and Jackson never backed down. Both had been released on parole in the past two years. "We knew in our heart and we thank God," Williams said.
Judge Hawk couldn't find words strong enough for a suitable apology for what the men had faced.
"To say I'm sorry is not enough," Hawk told the men. "I hope that you have full and happy lives." The full courtroom cheered after the judge shook their hands. This was Hawk's fourth exoneration hearing in her nine years on the bench, she said. All four cases were originally heard in the same 291st district courtroom in front of Judge Gerry Meier.
Former public defender Michelle Moore worked with Watkins' Conviction Integrity Unit from its 2007 creation until last year. When she left her position, Julie Doucet took over. Moore said Jackson's and Williams' cases were initially rejected, until the Conviction Integrity Unit revisited them sometime around 2007 during an intense review of hundreds of cases.
"There was a lot of arguing about this one," Moore says. "Finally, we found some evidence to test." The biological evidence not only determined the innocence of Jackson and Williams, but it also revealed two men believed to be the actual perpetrators, both in prison for other crimes. Marion Sayles and Frederick Anderson have since been indicted for attempted capital murder.
As has become tradition on exoneration mornings, District Attorney Watkins addressed the courtroom when the hearing was over. "We are doing something wrong with our criminal justice system and we need to fix it," Watkins said. He addressed the two men, adding, "I am sorry the criminal justice system was not working for you."
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Jackson wasn't mad, only thankful. "I hold no grudge against the victim. I'm just thankful that they had DNA and they kept ours," he said.
But accountability in this case, as in many similar cases, is tough to nail down.
"I think the real thing was just getting you convicted, and they didn't care whether you was innocent or not," Jackson said. If a jury sees a distraught victim and she identifies the men in court as having done the crime, Williams said, it's pretty tough to convince a jury otherwise. He added that the jurors in their cases were all white.
"Back then the system was different," Jackson said. And while the system "back then" put him in prison, he's sure glad the system now cleared his name. Williams had a different explination: "See, this is a miracle."