In 1990, Michael Phillips was convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl at a motel in Dallas, Tex., where they both lived. Phillips pleaded guilty because, he said later, his attorney told him that as a black man who had been accused of raping a white teenager, he should try to avoid a jury trial. He went to prison for a dozen years and, after his release, spent another six months in jail after failing to register as a sex offender
Now, nearly a quarter of a century after he was convicted, Phillips’s name is being cleared. And, in an unusual twist, he didn’t even realize it was happening.
Hundreds of people have been exonerated through DNA testing, with 317 such post-conviction exonerations since 1989, according to the Innocence Project. This week, the office of Craig Watkins, the Dallas County district attorney, announced that Phillips, 57, was going to join their ranks.
Phillips, though, was not aware that DNA testing was going to prove his innocence, nor was he seeking such tests or pushing for an exoneration. He is the first person exonerated by a prosecutor’s office without doing these things, according to Watkins’s office and the National Registry of Exonerations.It seemed inevitable that testing rape kit backlogs would reveal some innocence cases as well as help identify assailants in under-investigated rape cases. Maybe now that Watkins has broken the ice, other DAs will feel more comfortable testing for possible exonerations as well as to identify new suspects in cold cases. Congrats and good luck to Mr. Phillips, for whom it must feel like Christmas in July.
“This is different from other exonerations…in a very important way,” said Samuel R. Gross, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations and a law professor at the University of Michigan. “The man who was exonerated, this wasn’t on his mind. He wasn’t thinking about it, he hadn’t thought about it.”
Instead, the first he heard about it was when someone from the Conviction Integrity Unit contacted him, Gross said. That unit was established by Watkins’s office in 2007 to review and investigate claims of innocence and other old cases.