Because he has sickle cell anemia, Michael Phillips sat in a wheelchair Friday morning in court, his lawyer at his side. At 57, his black hair was in a short afro, his scraggly beard white. Today, he was being officially exonerated for a crime for which he served 12 years.
In 1990, he was accused of raping a 16-year-old girl. They lived in the same motel, and the girl had picked Phillips out of a photo lineup. Case closed, especially after his lawyer told him to plead guilty. He was black and the girl was white, and, Phillips said in a press release, his lawyer told him a jury wouldn't be sympathetic.
He was released in 2002, but finding a place to live and a job were challenges. He lives in a nursing home now. He was innocent, but he wasn't demanding a DNA test, and that's what makes this exoneration unique. No one told prosecutors to look specifically at Michael Phillips' case, not even Michael Phillips.
Watkins' Conviction Integrity Unit has begun systematically examining untested DNA evidence from old cases with the help of two professors, one from the University of Michigan and one from the University of Baltimore. There are thousands of rape cases available to test, so they adhered to two rules. They would only conduct tests that might confirm a convicted person's guilt or prove innocence, and they would only investigate cases where the testing was "comparatively easy, to look first for the low hanging fruit," according to the release.
The semen in the rape kit that was part of Phillips' case was matched against the FBI's Combined DNA Index System and came up with a match for another man who lived in the same motel at the same time as Phillips and the girl. Because of the statute of limitations, that man will not be charged.
In the courtroom, the two professors sat behind Phillips. Watkins sat at the prosecutors' table, flanked by two other lawyers. The three long pews were full of people. Many were reporters or cameramen. Several were past exonerees.
The prosecutor to Watkins' left stood up and told the judge that Phillips had a claim to actual innocence, and the state supported it. Defendants who are proven actually innocent get $80,000 for each year they were incarcerated. He has a little less than a million dollars coming his way.
"I want to apologize to you publicly," Watkins said, shaking Phillips' hand. He had the other exonerees stand up. Watkins added that it was an unfortunate day, not a happy one, because the justice system had failed this man.
About five minutes after it started, the hearing ended. Photographers rushed to get pictures of Watkins posing with Phillips, and reporters pushed and shoved to ask a question. Soon, Phillips was wheeled out of the courtroom. Reporters continued to ask questions.
"Pick up the Bible," he said in a scratchy voice. "That's all I got to say."
Phillips is the 34th person exonerated in Dallas County since 2001.
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