ARLINGTON — During a prolonged standing ovation, the Texas exonerees were brought forward one by one. By the time the introductions were done, 14 men and one woman, each having served years in prison for crimes they did not commit, stood together on a stage at the University of Texas at Arlington.
"On this panel there is 200 years of incarceration," one of them, Anthony Robinson, told a large crowd of students, educators, relatives and government officials. "Two hundred years of suffering. Two hundred years of ignoring a problem that is screaming to be dealt with.
"You have a chance to make a phenomenal difference," said Robinson, who was wrongly convicted of rape. "This is a cause."
The emotional gathering of exonerees, one of the largest since wrongful convictions began making national headlines several years ago, headlined a daylong conference Friday sponsored by the UTA School of Social Work. Also on the program was the brother of Fort Worth’s Timothy Cole, who died in prison after being convicted of a rape he didn’t commit. A panel of criminal justice experts concluded the day.
But the event clearly belonged to the former prisoners. Conference organizer Jaimie Page, a UTA professor of social work, first heard a smaller group of exonerees speak at an Innocence Project event in Fort Worth a few years ago. Ever since, she has worked to help them make the transition into life in the free world.
"I’m not an emotional person, but I cried my eyes out," Page said Friday. "It was a life-changing moment, and I hope it will have the same effect on someone in the audience today so we can keep the movement going."
The exonerees greeted one another on stage with hugs and handshakes as they were introduced. Then, in eerily similar terms, they told of being wrongly convicted of crimes including rape and murder and spending up to 27 years behind bars before being freed. Most were exonerated through DNA testing.
"I was in the break room at work, and a woman said my voice sounded like the man who raped her," said Keith Turner, who was sentenced to 20 years for aggravated sexual assault in Dallas and forced to register as a sex offender when he was paroled.
Turner said he contacted a judge to try to clear his name after seeing a television program about DNA evidence.
James Waller, another Dallas resident exonerated in 2007, said he was convicted by a jury in 46 minutes for raping a 14-year-old boy.
"I was the only black man living in the apartments close to where he lived," Waller said. "They said [the assailant] was 5-8. I’m 6-4. They said I was light-complected, but all my people are from Africa. . . . If I was innocent, I know there are a whole lot more people like me."
That was a theme. Almost to a person, the exonerees said those liberated so far (245 by DNA testing in the United States since 1989) comprise a fraction of the wrongly convicted.
"Those voices cry out from behind the walls: Help me," said Dallas exoneree Eugene Henton, who was cleared two years ago.
They also praised Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins, whose office joined the Innocence Project to investigate innocence claims and expedite exonerations. More prisoners have been cleared in Dallas County than in any other U.S. county.
"Dallas has a head start on the rest of the country," said Robinson, who spent a decade in prison and became a lawyer after his exoneration. "Do not let his term pass away. Do not let the voice of reason and justice be silenced because they do not like to look at the faces they tried to throw away."
In the afternoon session, Cory Session dabbed away tears while remembering his older brother, Timothy Cole. Cole was wrongly convicted of raping a woman in Lubbock and died in prison a decade ago. His name was later cleared when another man admitted to the crime. This year, in the Tim Cole Act, the Texas Legislature passed a law boosting payments to the wrongly convicted from $50,000 to $80,000 for every year behind bars.
"Some say of the exonerees, they are millionaires," Session said, with many of the wrongly convicted sitting in the audience. "I say you are heirs to millions who have been wrongly convicted. Millions didn’t make it, but you are one of the lucky ones who did. But there had to be a sacrificial lamb who stepped up by the name of Tim Cole."
The conference came a week after the work of UTA student Natalie Ellis helped exonerate Claude Simmons and Christopher Scott in a Dallas County murder. On Friday, the men thanked Ellis from the stage. Several other exonerees spoke directly to students in the audience.
"Students did most of this," said Steven Phillips, who served 25 years in prison for rape before his exoneration in Dallas last year. "Things like that give us hope."