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 the process for re-examining a case, which has been described in Texas as a ‘Herculean Effort’ and begins with an inmate claiming their innocence.
Throughout this process, it’s important to consider how technology and the process for examining evidence has dramatically changed since the use of DNA became commonplace.
Beyond that, the technology available for analyzing DNA has drastically changed in a relatively short period of time. Whereas it was once necessary to consume larger quantities of evidence to obtain a profile and mixtures remained inconclusive, we can now deconvolute those mixtures with greater accuracy and can retest much smaller amounts of evidence. All of this is important to consider when re-examining a case.
If everything goes smoothly, the full process can take between 8-10 years, which is an eternity to someone who is incarcerated for a crime that they did not commit. Such was the case for Stephen Brodie.
In September of 1990, a 5-year-old girl was abducted from her home in Richardson, Texas and molested. With little information to go on aside from the victim describing her attacker as a “fat white man” and a fingerprint from the window screen where the attacker had entered the home, the case started to turn cold.
In August of 1991, Stephen Brodie was arrested for burglary of a coin-operated soda machine at a swimming pool in Richardson near where the girl had been assaulted. The police brought him in for questioning where he quickly confessed to the burglary. They then began to question him about the crime which had occurred the year prior.
Stephen was interrogated over 18 hours about the assault. He was deaf, so much of the questioning was done through writing and without the benefit of an interpreter. Ultimately, Stephen did confess to the crime, but had gotten a 44 of 46 details of the crime wrong or failed to mention them at all. Faced with a possible 99-year sentence, Stephen pled guilty to rape and received a 5-year sentence.
Stephen subsequently filed a state law petition for a writ of habeas corpus but was denied. Stephen served his five-year term and was released in 1998. However, he was subsequently convicted three times for failure to register as a sex offender. He was sentenced to five years in prison for two of the cases and two years in prison for the third.
It was later discovered that Stephen was excluded as a match to the fingerprint on the victim’s screen. Analysis had linked the print to Robert Warterfield, who had previously been convicted of sexually assaulting a child less than a mile from the Richardson attack and was suspected in a number of other assaults in the area. Stephen’s case was re-opened by the Dallas County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit.
In 2010, prosecutors in that unit argued for Stephen’s release, and in September 2010, a Texas District Court judge granted a second state law petition for a writ of habeas corpus and vacated his conviction on the grounds of actual innocence. On November 10, 2010, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted the writ and ordered the conviction vacated. The case was then dismissed in Dallas County Criminal District Court.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals also granted a separate habeas writ and vacated his convictions for failing to register as a sex offender. The appeals court found Stephen “actually innocent.”
In 2012, Robert Warterfield was convicted of two other abductions and assaults of young girl–one in Dallas County and the other in Collin County–after he was linked to the crimes through DNA testing. He was sentenced to two life terms in prison.