Friday, 11 July 2008

Wrongfully convicted man freed after 16 years

Patrick Waller's case adds weight to the calls for a statewide innocence commission

Stories about wrongly convicted defendants were once rare examples of the miscarriage of justice. But what had been a trickle of accounts of those victimized by the criminal justice system has become a stream. Last week, another man who spent years in prison for a crime he didn't commit was released after DNA testing.

Patrick Waller, a 38-year-old Dallas man, spent 16 years in prison after being convicted of robbery and kidnapping in 1992. There are two cruel ironies in Waller's case. He could have been freed seven years ago, but the Dallas district attorney at that time, Bill Hill, objected and Waller's efforts to obtain genetic testing were delayed until last fall.

Another cruel irony in Waller's case is that authorities now know who the real perpetrators of the crime were. They have confessed. But the statute of limitations has expired and they can't be prosecuted. If the previous district attorney had agreed to Waller's request for DNA testing seven years ago, the real criminals could have been brought to justice. One innocent man was sent to prison, and two guilty men went free.

"I never thought there were innocent people in jail," said Waller, interviewed in the Dallas County Jail shortly before his release. "Sixteen years of my life taken. It's been a struggle daily -- going to bed, knowing I'm someplace I don't deserve to be." His son and daughter, now both 18 and freshmen in college, visited him regularly while he was in prison.

Waller's story has a happier ending than that of Tim Brian Cole, who died in prison serving time for a rape that he apparently did not commit. DNA evidence points to another man and the Innocence Project is trying to clear Cole's name posthumously.

That Patrick Waller, Tim Brian Cole and so many other innocent people ended up behind bars in Texas is not a frivolous charge made up by critics of the criminal justice system. Waller is the 18th man from Dallas County who has been exonerated by DNA testing. The county has more DNA exonerations than any other in the country. Since 1994, 33 men have been exonerated in Texas based on post-conviction DNA testing. They had served, collectively, 427 years in prison. When you add Waller's name, that makes 34 men who have served 443 years behind bars. Think about those wasted years in prison . . . think about the pain and anguish of family and friends.

That may seem like an incredible number of exonerations, but the situation could be worse. In Dallas County, wrongful convictions have come to light because Craig Watkins, who took office as district attorney in Dallas County in January 2007, formed a conviction integrity unit that has been reviewing DNA tests that were previously denied by former district attorneys. Those cases have also been brought to light because Dallas County preserved its DNA evidence; many jurisdictions have not.

Would more cases of wrongful convictions surface if other district attorneys were as aggressive in reviewing old cases where DNA evidence has been preserved, and where convictions relied so heavily on eyewitness accounts? Certainly the possibility remains that there are more innocent people behind bars in Texas whose innocence has not been established.

The reasons for so many flawed convictions vary from faulty eyewitness identification, incompetent court-appointed lawyers, slipshold police work, questionable actions by prosecutors, official bungling of one sort or another. The number of exonerations attests to the revolution that DNA testing has done for criminology and to the fact that something went terribly wrong in the prosecution of so many cases.

These mistakes add weight to calls for a statewide innocence project. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals also recently formed a Criminal Judicial Integrity Unit to investigate the state's criminal justice system. Both are needed. Whatever is wrong with the judicial system needs to be straightened out so that the innocent go free and the guilty go to prison, not the other way around, as it was in the Waller case. Fixing that should be at the top of the state's to-do list.

1 comment:

Mrs. LaCaze said...

I am so happy for him. My husband is fighting to be free from a crime he did not commit as well I know that it will take some getting used but enjoy your freedom and leave those 16 years in the past so that your new life and begin.

Katasha LaCaze