Mr. Phillips fought his convictions for years but made little headway until the Innocence Project championed his cause. Attorney Barry Scheck said the Phillips case was “one of the worst cases of tunnel vision we’ve ever seen. Police seized on Steven Phillips as a suspect and refused to see mounting evidence that someone else actually committed these crimes.”
Mr. Phillips was identified by 10 different victims, many of whom had described the attackers striking blue eyes. Mr. Phillips’ eyes are green and his wife and two other relatives testified that he was with them when the crime occurred.
As in every DNA exoneration, not only was an innocent punished but the guilty party was never prosecuted for the crimes. The real offender, a man named Charles Goodyear, died in prison in 1998 serving time for an unrelated offense.
Phillips case compellingly demonstrates the need for requiring use of best practices in police lineups. One of the oft-ignored requirement is that fillers for a lineup should be chosen based on the witness description, not because they look like the chosen suspect. I have to wonder if the lineups shown to witnesses had included five blue-eyed people and Phillips with green eyes, would he still have been chosen? One also wonders if a "blind" administrator might have avoided tainting eyewitness testimony and been less likely to steer witnesses toward the wrong man? The Fort Worth Star Telegram added a little more background on the case:
Phillips was convicted of rape and burglary in two trials in 1982 and 1983 for charges stemming from the same crime. He was eventually linked to nine similar crimes that took place in spring 1982 in the Dallas area, according to the Innocence Project.
The crimes were committed by someone wearing a hood who forced women — sometimes in large groups — to strip and perform sexual acts at gunpoint.
Although Phillips argued that the victims had misidentified him — and his former wife provided an alibi — the juries convicted him anyway, giving him two 30-year sentences. Afraid of getting a life sentence for the other crimes because he was getting "smashed in court," Phillips said he took a plea bargain in the other cases.
"Once they got it started, they could not turn off the machine," Phillips said. "The truth had already slipped away."
Phillips’ request to have the DNA retested was denied by the Dallas DA’s office in 2001. But current Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins agreed to re-examine the scientific material in 2007.