The courtroom was filled with tears, then cheers: Two men who spent 12 years in prison for a crime they didn't commit went free today. And while Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins believes this a defining moment for his office and a turning point for Dallas County, 54-year-old Claude Simmons Jr. and 39-year-old Christopher Shun Scott -- sentenced to life in prison for the 1997 robbery and murder of Alfonso Aguilar -- are far less concerned at the moment with the political ramifications.
"It's just a glorious day for me," Scott told Unfair Park. He spoke of feeling some bitterness towards those who sent him away for so long for a crime he did not commit: "I can forgive, but not forget." And yet, he's at peace. "I just got to keep praying for it," he said.
Simmons, speaking to us after he'd left the Frank Crowley Courthouse and took his first steps of freedom in the brisk October afternoon, said, "I haven't been past those gates in so long. I didn't know which way to go." (He was, of course, given directions -- to House of Blues, where Simmons and Scott were joined by several other men recently freed from prison after their wrongful incarcerations. More about that after the jump.)
Since their arrests 12 years ago, both men maintained their innocence; one year ago, university-run groups devoted to proving prisoners' innocence championed their cause and convinced the Dallas County District Attorney -- and, ultimately, the Dallas Police Department -- to investigate. Theirs was an extraordinary case: While 20 other men have free before them, Simmons and Scott are the first two freed without DNA evidence. And Michelle Moore at the Conviction Integrity Unit, says they will not be the last: "This is the tip of the iceberg here," she told Unfair Park. "This is where we're going to be in the future."
Criminal District Court Judge Robert Burns apologized to the two men; he told them that this time, unlike their last visit to this court, they had received justice. Simmons and Scott then spoke of faith and forgiveness; it's time to begin life anew, surrounded by the friends and family who'd come to the courthouse for their first day of freedom since 1997.
Their first destination: the House of Blues. Simmons held tight to the waist of his suit pants as he heaved up the tall staircase in front of the venue. In court, his pants had dropped to the floor, but in an instant he picked them back up. After more than a decade in a state-issued jumpsuit, the suit didn't fit. "We're going to have to get you a belt," said a young lawyer, smiling.
Inside, Simmons sipped from a tall glass of Coke. Yes, he'd had Coke in prison. "But I haven't had a coke with ice!" Scott, who is called simply Shun (pronounced "Sean") by his family, paced outside on the cell phone, smiling and talking to people he hadn't spoken to in years.
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Back inside at the bar, other exonerees sat sipping non-alcoholic drinks, allowing their new friends to occupy the spot light. "They're on top of the world," said Steven Phillips, who was exonerated in August 2008. He and his girlfriend, Connie Jean Meador, sat on bar stools and sipped coffee.
Further down the bar sat Moore and exoneree No. 15, Charles Chatman. He had no problem putting himself in the shoes of the newly freed men: "[They're feeling] a whirlwind of emotions."
Moore said she had the best job in the world.
"As far as I'm concerned," Chatman interrupted. "She's the best lawyer in the world."