Sunday, 20 July 2008

Lancaster event focuses attention on DNA exonerations

07:05 PM CDT on Saturday, July 19, 2008

By FRANK TREJO / The Dallas Morning News

The use of DNA testing to clear those wrongfully convicted of crimes, and the lessons that have been learned through exonerations in Dallas County, took center stage Saturday during panel discussions that attracted local, state and federal officials to Lancaster.

The event at Cedar Valley College, organized by U.S. Rep Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, focused attention on the cases of 18 men convicted of crimes in Dallas County who have been exonerated through the use of DNA testing. Some of the men spent decades behinds bars.

Three of those who have been freed spoke Saturday about the impact the convictions had on their lives and their efforts to adjust to life outside prison walls.

Ms. Johnson said no one would argue that those who commit crimes should be punished, but she added that the panel discussions were about those who are innocent and are convicted.

“There is perhaps no greater failure in our democracy and our justice system than the conviction and incarceration of those who have been wrongfully accused,” Ms. Johnson said. “Today we will examine what went wrong — how these men and many others were wrongfully convicted.”

Among the participants was U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., who said the DNA exonerations in Dallas are helping to spark a national examination of the issue.

“I consider this to be very important in bringing us a little bit closer to justice,” said Mr. Conyers, who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “More and more people are beginning to hear about this problem.”

Also participating in the panels were Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins; state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston; state District Judge John Creuzot; and Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas.

Charles Chatman, who was released in January after 27 years in prison for a wrongful aggravated rape conviction, said he wanted to remind people that others in similar situations still remain in prisons.

“We need to get out to the public that we still have work to do,” Mr. Chatman said.

Similar thoughts were echoed by James Woodard, who served 27 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

DNA testing, Mr. Woodard said, presented an opportunity to show the “prosecutorial misconduct” that occurred in his case.

Billy James Smith, who was released from prison two years ago this month after DNA testing, had served 19 years for aggravated sexual assault.

Mr. Smith said he has tried to move on with his life. He now has a job as a delivery truck driver, but he acknowledged that he sometimes struggles. He said he sometimes is afraid of being around women, concerned that they might accidentally touch.

“The most difficult thing is when I have to tell people I was in prison and what happened to me. And then the next difficult thing is when they ask me if I’m getting compensation, like if that was the most important thing,” he said. “The most important thing is to be stable and to be able to function.”

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