The Twelfth Man

Barry Scheck's all about getting innocent people out of jail, which is great, but it still doesn't explain that whole O.J. thing.

Barry Scheck, former O.J. Simpson defense attorney and founder and co-director of The Innocence Project, is scheduled to appear in a Dallas courtroom this morning with John Waller, the 12th man to be exonerated by DNA testing in Dallas County. It looks like Scheck is trying to draw attention to the county's woeful track record when it comes to wrongful conviction.

"Nowhere else in the nation have so many individual wrongful convictions been proven in one county in such a short span of time," Scheck says in an Innocence Project news release. "This demands a closer look and statewide action."

So far, 190 people in 32 states have been exonerated through DNA testing. But as I pointed out here, Dallas County has had a dozen -- more than most states.

Waller, convicted and sentenced to 30 years in 1983 for the rape of a 12-year-old boy, will stand before Judge John Creuzot this morning -- the hearing is scheduled to begin at 11:30 -- to enter the findings of the DNA results into the official court record. Then, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins and the Innocence Project, which took on his case, will file a writ asking the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to vacate Waller's conviction.

Waller first sought testing seven years ago. Released on parole in 1993, his life has been regulated by the strict rules governing sex offenders. According to the Innocence Project, he was convicted on the basis of the 12-year-old boy's identification. He first said he hadn't seen his attacker's face, which had been covered by a bandana. But the day after his assault the boy was in a 7-Eleven store, heard Waller's voice and identified him as his assailant.

"Rather than questioning a traumatized boy's memory or using simple procedures to evaluate how certain he was of the identification, police arrested James Waller and built a case around convicting him," Scheck said while announcing Waller's test results. "They turned a scared child's mistake into a miscarriage of justice. Most of the 12 wrongful convictions in Dallas County that have recently been uncovered through DNA testing involved eyewitness misidentification. Nobody can credibly deny that there is an alarming pattern in Dallas County, or that we need a statewide mechanism to identify and address the causes of wrongful convictions."

Though Watkins' office has said there are six other inmates in the DNA testing "pipeline," I have been unable to get those names from the DA's office since he took office. And does that mean there are six inmates awaiting results? Or have those six merely been approved for testing? Or did they simply request testing?

With the Dallas County District Attorney's Office's record of fighting all such requests -- and considering how high the stakes -- why not test all those who ask for them, if the biological evidence is available? Yeah, it's expensive. But keeping someone in prison for years also costs big bucks, to say the least, especially if they don't belong there. --Glenna Whitley

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky