Man cleared by DNA test fights for full exoneration
Dallas County: Innocence in boy's 1982 rape still not reflected in records
12:00 AM CST on Thursday, January 18, 2007
By ROBERT THARP / The Dallas Morning News
Twenty-four years after he was sent to prison for a crime he did not commit, 50-year-old James Waller returned to court Wednesday to hear prosecutors and a Dallas judge apologize and pledge to help him clear his name.
A DNA analysis of the 1982 crime evidence ruled conclusively last month that Mr. Waller is not the man who broke into an Old East Dallas apartment and raped a 12-year-old boy. But the scientific victory is just part of the battle, and Mr. Waller's quest for complete exoneration is far from over.
Until a higher state appeals court grants paperwork showing that he is "actually innocent," Mr. Waller remains under parole supervision and must continue to register as a convicted sex offender. His current status in legal limbo also prevents him from receiving financial restitution for the years he spent in prison.
"To call his struggle for justice a long one would be the understatement of the year," said Nina Morrison, staff attorney for the Innocence Project, a nonprofit resource center devoted to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing.
Mr. Waller is the 12th Dallas County man to be exonerated of felony charges through DNA tests in the last five years. District Attorney Craig Watkins and national leaders of the exoneration movement said Mr. Waller's case is further cause to re-examine previous prosecution practices in Dallas County.
"No one knows why we have 12 and counting in Dallas," said Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck, who noted that one of the most difficult hurdles in such cases is finding microscopic evidence to perform a DNA test decades after a conviction.
Mr. Watkins, who took office Jan. 1, said he is reviewing the 12 exonerations, most of which date to cases from the 1980s, to determine whether there is a pattern that warrants an investigation. He also pledged to act quickly when DNA tests raise questions about a person's guilt.
"By standing up and doing the right thing, we improve our credibility with the citizens of Dallas County," he said.
Mr. Waller never stopped protesting his innocence, even after he was paroled in 1993. He said he's not angry about what he has been through but still doesn't understand why he was implicated in the crime and wrongly convicted.
"I just wish and pray that the kid would know that he made a mistake," he said. "Not that he lied, but he might have been led into it."
The victim in the case, now 37, could not be reached for comment.
Mr. Waller's family stood beside him through the years.
"From day one, I never doubted his innocence in any way because I knew my brother," said his sister, Patsy Waller. "I'm glad he was able to keep fighting. We knew he wasn't guilty of anything, but it was a struggle. It was devastating to have him locked up all those years."
He first requested DNA testing in 1999 before a state law was enacted requiring that convicts be given such opportunities. In 2001, District Judge John Creuzot granted his request, but a DNA analysis performed at that time by the state Department of Public Safety crime lab was not sensitive enough to test the small amount of DNA evidence recovered in his case, and the results were inconclusive.
Although he almost gave up his quest after his pregnant wife was killed in a car crash in 2001, Mr. Waller pressed on. Attorneys for the Innocence Project examined his case and felt he would be a good candidate for a relatively new and more sensitive DNA test through a private lab in Dallas. That test concluded that someone other than Mr. Waller is responsible for raping the boy.
Mr. Scheck said Mr. Waller's case shows that new DNA testing procedures can produce results that were not possible just a few years ago. For that reason, authorities should review cases like Mr. Waller's that previously had DNA tests that were ruled inconclusive, he said.
Like many of the 190 exonerations nationwide made possible by DNA tests, Mr. Waller's wrongful conviction was based on mistaken identification.
Although the 12-year-old victim said he never got a good look at his attacker because the man was wearing a bandana over his face, he later identified Mr. Waller based solely on his eyes and voice.
Mr. Waller is now planning to regain a sense of normalcy, possibly get married and have children.
"I thank God I'm still here," he said, prompting Judge Creuzot to respond: "Me, too."