Sunday, January 09, 2011

Every new DNA exoneration in Dallas County reveals how broken the justice system is

The following opinion was published in the Ft. Worth (TX) Star-Telegram on January 8, 2011.


The people of Dallas County should be adorned in sackcloth and ashes this day as a sign of deep mourning for the travesties they have allowed to happen in the name of justice.

All Texans, in fact, ought to grieve for those we have permitted to be convicted and imprisoned in a system that has proved to be hopelessly flawed and perhaps even criminal in its application of law enforcement, prosecution and punishment.

There are many whom we now know our system failed, and in failing them it has failed us all.

Some would say that the atrocious miscarriages of justice were mistakes, mere anomalies that are bound to happen in an over-taxed criminal justice structure.

It is clear, however, that the numbers are such that these wrongful convictions and false imprisonments are not aberrations, but the results of an ingrained systemic methodology designed with an emphasis on retribution rather than fairness.

Once again last week in a Dallas courtroom, another man stood before a judge to hear his name cleared of a crime he did not commit -- a crime for which he spent more than 30 years in the state penitentiary.

Cornelius Dupree Jr., who was only 21 when he was convicted in connection with a 1979 abduction, rape and robbery and given a 75-year sentence, was overwhelmed when he heard the judge say, "You're free to go."

He became the 25th man in Dallas County to be exonerated since 2001 -- the 21st cleared through DNA evidence. His ordeal showcases a pattern of "mistakes" that is unfathomable.

A co-defendant, Anthony Massingill, was also cleared through DNA testing in that case but remains in prison on a life sentence for another rape, although authorities at the time thought both crimes had been committed by the same people. Every day he remains behind bars is another slap in the face of Lady Justice.

There ought to be weeping and wailing in the streets of Dallas for such egregious acts.

It is amazing that DNA evidence dating back 30 years was still available.

Many in the Dallas County district attorney's office had assumed that no such evidence existed before 1981. Now it only makes one wonder, "How many more?"

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, appearing last week on PBS' NewsHour, said there were "several others in the pipeline" who may be innocent.

Because of his embracing and cooperating with the Innocence Project, and for creating a Convictions Integrity Unit to look at old cases to correct some of these horrific errors, Watkins is without a doubt the best district attorney Dallas has had in at least 40 years.

Based on the criticism he received during his first term in office, from media as well as other detractors, one might get the impression that he has been a dismal failure. It's almost as if they'd like to see a return to the good ol' boy system/dynasty that ruled the DA's office for so long and was responsible for most of these wrongful convictions.

Watkins is to be commended for his focus on this major issue and for his leadership in trying to get other district attorneys in the state and around the country to act similarly.

He points out the need to use technology and science to do a better job in putting the right people behind bars, and freeing those who are truly innocent. But the problem is not all about the science, he says.

In each of the cases in which DNA has proved a person innocent, there was "eyewitness" testimony from a victim or bystander. That means something has been terribly wrong with that process.

Watkins, who is beginning his second term as DA, has recommended changes. An independent panel, named for another wrongly convicted man from Fort Worth who died in prison, has suggested a series of safeguards against erroneous convictions, and the new state Legislature should consider those recommendations in the session that begins Tuesday.

I wish all district attorneys believed as Watkins does: "As DAs, we're not here to seek convictions. We're here to seek justice."



Marco Anders said...

I have to tell you; this pisses me off beyond description. A man loses over 30 yrs of his life and for what? Not a god-damned thing, that's what. So all the judge can say is "you're free to go?" How about this; every son-of-a-bitch responsible for putting him there needs to have their ass thrown in jail for the same amount of time he had to spend. I tell you, a lot of these arrogant bastards in the legal system ought to have their titles and offices stripped from them or at least be fined significantly to help compensate the person they helped ramrod through the system. I guess we can only hope that some of the people involved will be humble enough to go to the defendant and apologize.

Dallas Criminal Attorney said...

Thank you for your kind words. Good luck with your legal career.