Friday, 8 August 2008

Judge tosses out convictions for DNA exonoree

DALLAS -- A judge on Tuesday recommended clearing the record of a wrongly convicted man who spent 25 years in prison for a series of sex crimes he did not commit.

Steven Phillips responded by removing a tracking device that had been strapped to his ankle since December, when he was released from prison on parole. He held up the ankle monitor to a cheering courtroom packed with a dozen family members and at least six fellow exonorees, who collectively served more than 100 years of hard time until DNA tests proved their innocence.

"There was a lot of faith involved _ the faith of my mother, the faith of my friends and my own faith," said Phillips, 50. "It's a wonderful day."

The judge's recommendation comes about a year after DNA testing showed Phillips was innocent of a 1982 sexual assault and burglary. Additional DNA testing earlier this year linked the crimes to Sidney Alvin Goodyear, who died in prison in 1998.

Phillips will be officially exonerated once the state Court of Criminal Appeals upholds the judge's recommendation or Gov. Rick Perry grants a pardon.

Phillips, a soft-spoken grandfather, was occasionally interrupted by the electronic beeping of his court-ordered tracking device. He said he spent his time in prison writing letters to his mother and three children. Two were in court Tuesday, including Spc. Zachary Phillips, who wore his dress uniform and has served two tours in Iraq.

"I would wake up and say, I'm innocent ... ," Phillips said. "Sometimes that was all there was to hang onto. Unfortunately, it took 25 years to come into play."

Phillips is one of 19 men in Dallas County since 2001 proven innocent by DNA testing, a national high, according to the Innocence Project, a New York-based legal center that represented Phillips and specializes in wrongful convictions.

Phillips' case differs from the previous 18, complicated by his pleading guilty to nine similar sex crimes after two juries convicted him in separate trials for sexual assault and burglary. He received 30-year sentences in both cases and said he feared life sentences if he did not plead guilty to the other charges.

After a lengthy investigation, Dallas County prosecutors now believe Goodyear committed all 11 crimes that sent Phillips to prison.

"We were getting smashed in court," Phillips said of his decision to plead guilty. "The truth had already slipped away."

In recommending his convictions be overturned, Judge Lena Levario cited DNA testing showing Phillips was innocent and the state's failure to disclose evidence favorable to Phillips.

Dallas police were investigating a series of sex crimes in 1982 around the same time police in Kansas City were investigating a similar spree, said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project. A man breaking into homes and raping women was also entering health spas, holding up women at gunpoint and forcing them to commit sexual acts.

Kansas City police correctly focused their investigation on Goodyear, and sent his photo to Dallas police, Scheck said. At least one victim in the Dallas crimes identified Goodyear. Other Dallas victims identified Phillips, who resembled Goodyear in that both were white men with receding hair lines.

At one point, an arrest warrant was issued in Dallas for Goodyear, but it was later dropped. That information was not disclosed to defense attorneys, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins said.

But Dallas police ignored evidence that didn't point to Phillips, Scheck said. Scheck declined to identify the lead investigator on the case, whom Phillips said has since retired.

"There is this issue of tunnel vision on the part of police officers zeroing in on one suspect and not following the other leads," Scheck said.

Other evidence also connects Goodyear to the crimes. The gun, clothing, car and threats used in the Dallas cases are identical to those from crimes committed by Goodyear in other states, Scheck said.

Phillips said he was victimized by police, who targeted him as the suspect and could not be persuaded otherwise.

"Once they got started, I think they just could not turn off the machine," Phillips said.

Phillips first applied for DNA testing in 2001, a motion opposed by the Dallas County district attorney at the time. He reapplied last year, a motion unopposed by Watkins, who has been examining cases of wrongful conviction since taking office in January 2007.

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