In the end, it only took minutes for Judge Larry Mitchell to clear Hilliard Fields of the sexual assault charges that have followed him for the last 14 years.
"Sir, I'm very sorry for the misery this has caused you in your life," Mitchell said to Fields, who, at a hearing this morning at the Dallas County Courthouse, stood quietly between his lawyers.
Mitchell added that the District Attorney's Office's policy has always been "not to seek conviction, but to seek justice," which, judging from the facts of the case, hasn't always been the policy. And with that, the judge formally signed an order recommending that the Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin clear Fields's name -- a name that was smeared 14 years ago, apparently on the shoddy word of an angry mom and the shoddy work of numerous lawyers.
Fields was already facing a drug charge in 1997 when he was charged with sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl. According to attorney Gary Udashen, both Fields and his alleged victim always insisted that nothing sexual ever occurred between them. The only evidence against him was a letter that the girl's mother said she had found, from the girl to Fields, containing, as prosecutors put it, "descriptions of sexual activity."
No one has ever seen the letter -- not Fields, not his attorneys and not the DA's office. But that didn't stop prosecutors from asking Fields to plead guilty to the crime. He would serve his five-year sentence at the same time as his five-year drug sentence, so it wouldn't make a difference -- until, that is, he got out and was permanently branded a sex offender.
After the brief hearing, Fields stood with Udashen and a scrum of reporters in the hallway outside the courtroom, looking dazed from the bright lights and sudden flood of attention. Udashen tried to explain how Fields ended up there.
"She had some convoluted anger issues," Udashen said, referring to the girl's mother. Recently, he said, "the mother admitted that the letter didn't exist." So why did Fields plead to sexual assault, then?
"He pled to it just because he was doing this other thing," Udashen said, referring to the unrelated drug charge. "Obviously, in retrospect it was a mistake."
"Being a registered sex offender is a very onerous process," Udashen continued. "And in this case, it's doubly onerous, when he doesn't deserve the restrictions and the label it puts on him."
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Udashen was unsure how the sexual assault charge was brought against Fields in the first place. "I don't know," he said. "Lots of people get indicted and charged for things they didn't do. Things like this do happen."
Finally clearing Fields's name will take several more months, Udashen said. Until then, Fields' name will remain on the sex offender registry. He's not eligible for the compensation that wrongfully imprisoned people usually receive -- $80,000 for each year they were locked up -- because the five years he spent in prison were for both the sexual assault charge and a separate, unrelated drug charge.
Fields was allowed to speak only briefly.
"I feel great about it," he said softly, a gold tooth flashing as he spoke. "I'm just glad it's over."