This morning, Johnny Pinchback sat in the Dallas County Jail, awaiting yet another stop in court. This afternoon, he will be at a steakhouse, celebrating with his family, friends and fellow exonerees.
After 27 years behind bars for an aggravated sexual assault he did not commit, Pinchback, dressed in a white-and-gray pin-striped suit, tightly hugged his tearful mother after a hearing that officially granted him freedom following DNA testing. A receiving line formed around him; family, friends and about 10 other exonerated prisoners clasped him and offered their support.
"There was no way that this was going to be solved, only by God," Pinchback told the crowd, emphasizing that faith and support from family and friends helped him maintain patience and persistence. "Love," he said, describing the moment to the crowd after the hearing. "I'm feeling love. I just ... I feel good."
Pinchback said he looks forward to helping other prisoners in the same situation, as his friends have helped him. Pinchback is the 26th exoneree and the 22nd cleared by DNA evidence in Dallas County since a 2001 law was passed allowing inmates to request DNA testing. He said he used to watch the exonerations on TV from prison and think, "When is my turn?"
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Natalie Roetzel, a lawyer who represented Pinchback on behalf of the Innocence Project of Texas, told Unfair Park that his was "the perfect case for DNA testing. The only evidence against him was the victim's testimony."
"We need to reform the criminal justice system," Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins told told a crowd gathered after the hearing. "What will help us do that is legislation." Watkins called for support of a bill that would regulate evidence storage state-wide.
Charles Chatman -- who, in 2008, became the 15th Dallas County man exonerated by DNA evidence -- knew Pinchback in prison. He's become an advocate on behalf of the wrongfully imprisoned, and he estimates he called the Innocence Project of Texas hundreds of times on his behalf. He worked behind the scenes to ensure Pinchback would eventually be a free man. After this morning's hearing, Chatman, who was exonerated after 27 years behind bars for rape, handed Pinchback a box containing a wallet containing $100.
The two became friends when Pinchback, who distributed boots to prisoners working in the fields, went out of his way to give Chatman boots that were in suitable condition and the correct size. "He would always give me the best pair," Chatman said. "Pinchback would always try to help the guys as much as he could." The two exonerees were in the same prison unit for more than 10 years.