According to the National Registry of Exonerations, there have been 3,337 exonerations since 1989 accounting for more than 29,500 years lost. In our quest for justice, how do we work to eliminate wrongful convictions? What has history taught us? What role has forensic DNA played since its emergence? In this video series we delve into the role of DNA testing in the United States in post-conviction work to exonerate the innocent and reassert convictions of the guilty.
In this episode, our experts discuss how cases are selected for re-examination. Is there an alternative narrative of innocence? Can it be proven? Is there DNA evidence to test?
We also look at the process for having a case re-examined; differences between states, the personnel involved, finances required, and the legal procedures, including the ramifications of self-representation.
Michael Ware discusses the first Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) established in Dallas County in 2007, dedicated to both reviewing cases involving allegations of actual innocence and cases involving instances of wrongful conviction when related to an innocence claim as well as a result of systematic errors. Currently, there are over 115 CIUs in the United States.
One example of a conviction being overturned due to review by a CIU is the case of Patrick Waller, who served 16 years for a robbery and kidnapping that he didn’t commit.
On March 25, 1992, a Dallas couple was abducted at gunpoint by two men. The men forced themselves into the couple’s car and had the couple drive the car to another neighborhood, withdraw $200 from an ATM, and later to an abandoned house, where the abductors tied them up and sexually assaulted the woman.
During the assault, another couple unexpectedly drove up to the abandoned house. One of the abductors forced the second couple into the house at gunpoint. When a school district security officer drove by the home, the perpetrators fled the scene separately in the couples’ two vehicles.
One week after the crime, three of the four victims picked Patrick Waller out of a photo lineup. The fourth victim would later pick Patrick out from a live lineup. Patrick was identified by the first couple as the man who held the gun during the attack and committed the sexual assault.
Patrick, who was on probation for an unrelated incident, was arrested and charged with aggravated robbery and aggravated kidnapping. The Dallas Police Department never identified or charged a second suspect.
At the trial, the four victims identified Patrick as one of the men who attacked them. An analyst who testified for the state said she had conducted blood type testing on a rape kit collected from the sexual assault survivor, and that Patrick could not be excluded as a potential contributor of the semen, even though 58% of the population could be excluded.
DNA testing was conducted in Patrick’s case in late 2007 as part of a joint effort conducted by the Innocence Project of Texas (IPTX) and the Dallas District Attorney’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit. The results revealed a male profile and excluded Patrick Waller as the perpetrator.
Officials then ran the DNA profile through the national DNA database, and found a match to Byron Bell, a Dallas man serving a 45-year-sentence for a burglary that took place months after the abduction. Bell eventually confessed to the original crime when confronted, telling police he had an accomplice, who police would soon learn was Lemondo Simmons.
County officials told local press that Simmons, who had been convicted and incarcerated in 2002 for assault on a public servant and released in 2004, admitted to his role in the crime but could not be charged since the statute of limitations on the crime had passed.