Dallas Frees Innocent Man

The New York Sun is reporting on one of the recent overturned convictions in Dallas. And getting the most important thing wrong. Of course.

Three times during his nearly 27 years in prison, Charles Chatman went before a parole board and refused to acknowledge he was a rapist. His steadfastness was vindicated yesterday, when a judge released him because of new DNA evidence showing he indeed wasn’t. The release of Mr. Chatman, 47, added to Dallas County’s nationally unmatched number of wrongfully convicted inmates.

No. The release added to Dallas County’s unmatched willingness to admit to having wrongfully convicted people. Face it. Prosecutors, over the last 20-50 years, have shown a despicable willingness to push through a conviction whether they have the right guy or not, and the darker the guy’s skin, the less willing they are to admit pursuing the wrong man. Prosecutors everywhere convict innocent men. Dallas just finally has a DA that is willing to do something about it.

Before the crime is officially cleared from Mr. Chatman’s record, the appeals court must accept the recommendation or the governor must grant a pardon. Either step is considered a formality after Mr. Creuzot’s ruling.

One thing that I will give to Rick Perry is that he has been pretty good about granting clemency where it is deserved and abiding the recommendations of judges and parole boards.

Dallas has freed more inmates after DNA testing than any other county nationwide, Natalie Roetzel of the Innocence Project of Texas said. Texas leads the country in prisoners freed by DNA testing, releasing at least 30 wrongfully convicted inmates since 2001, according to the Innocence Project.

One of the biggest reasons for the large number of exonerations is the crime lab used by Dallas County, which accounts for about half the state’s DNA cases. Unlike many jurisdictions, the lab used by police and prosecutors retains biological evidence, meaning DNA testing is a viable option for decades-old crimes.

This is the real issue. Most places, especially if they do their own testing, destroy the evidence as soon as they have a conviction. It isn’t illegal, but that doesn’t make it right. Dallas sent its evidence out to non-government labs, and those labs didn’t destroy the evidence as soon as they were convicted. Innocent people are getting out of Dallas County convictions because the evidence still exists to test, not because Dallas is worse that other places.

District Attorney Craig Watkins also attributes the exonerations to a past culture of overly aggressive prosecutors seeking convictions at any cost.

Mr. Watkins has started a program in which law students, supervised by the Innocence Project of Texas, are reviewing about 450 cases in which convicts have requested DNA testing to prove their innocence.

“It is time we stop kidding ourselves in believing that what happened in Dallas is somehow unique,” the founder of the Innocence Project of Texas, Jeff Blackburn, said. “What happened in Dallas is common. This is Texas.”

I would go further than that.  This is the American Legal System.  The Innocence Project is important work, and it needs to be replicated in other places, whether the local DA is cooperative (like Watkins) or not.

Prosecutors are supposed to exercise prosecutoral discretion.  That means discretion as to whether or not it is in the public’s interest to prosecute someone who is guilty, not the discretion to prosecute whoever is available and convictable.  And they have a duty to do something about it when they think there may be evidence of innocence, something Watkins has been refreshingly willing to do.

2 Comments

  1. mexigogue says:

    It always stuns me when a prosecutor is found to have not disclosed potentially exculpatory evidence. In whose interests is it to convict and punish an innocent person? The only thing I can think of (besides the race hatred reason) would be the fact that some prosecutors, like many police, begin to think of all the people they deal with as slimeballs and scumbags, and therefore worthy of punishment for some prior unpunished offense. That’s why I don’t like it when the people on COPS begin to refer to people as “bad guys”. That type of mentality makes it possible to justify any miscarriage of justice.

  2. Phelps says:

    Actually, it is in the interests of a prosecutor to get a conviction, and there is generally no way to ding them for convicting innocent people. They just get points for total convictions.