Friday, June 27, 2008

Delay in Waller's DNA testing kept innocent man in prison, let guilty one go free

It turns out that the actual rapist for whose 1992 crime Patrick Waller was wrongly convicted went free earlier this year because former Dallas District Attorney Bill Hill delayed DNA testing for too long. According to the Dallas News, Waller's defense attorney

said prosecutors under Mr. Hill opposed both [of Waller's] requests for testing. One prosecutor testified at a hearing that she would prosecute him again even if the DNA testing cleared him. Two trial judges and two state appeals courts agreed that testing should be denied.

Craig Watkins, who succeeded Mr. Hill as district attorney in January 2007, granted the DNA test to Mr. Waller. The results came back six months ago, but the tests did not fully exonerate him then because the victim was sexually assaulted by two men.

Early this year, DNA from the case matched DNA of a 38-year-old Dallas man serving time for burglary that occurred months after the abduction, Mr. Ware said. DNA connected Byron Demond Bell, the man who was serving a 45-year-sentence for burglary of a residence that occurred months after the abduction, Mr. Ware said. In April, DNA taken from Mr. Bell, now 38, to double-check the hit was once again a match.

Mr. Udashen said Mr. Hill's office paved the way for Mr. Bell to go free.

"Had they done a DNA test back in 2001 or 2005, they would have matched it up to Bell, and Bell would have never been paroled," Mr. Udashen said.

The DA, two trial judges and two appeals courts denied Waller DNA testing, but he turned out to be actually innocent. What does that tell you about the quality of those entities' vetting past convictions for possible innocence claims? Either the courts just aren't taking these cases seriously, or there's some legal standard that's not strict enough to cause them to act when they should.

Hopefully DAs in other jurisdictions who've been opposing post-conviction DNA analysis will take note and begin agreeing to more tests. It's not just a function of freeing the innocent, as important as that is. Waller's case shows that delays in post-conviction testing can also serve to let the guilty go free.

We also learn a little more in the Dallas News story about the witness identifications (four of them) that wrongly accused Waller:

Mr. Waller was arrested after a Dallas police officer selected him from a photo lineup as one of two men who fled from police in the West End days after the robbery.

At trial, prosecutors presented the identification of Mr. Waller by three of the victims and the police officer. They also introduced testimony from a forensic analyst who said Mr. Waller's blood type was consistent with that of the rapist. No DNA testing was performed at that time.

A Dallas County jury convicted Mr. Waller of aggravated robbery in December 1992 and sentenced him to life in prison. Mr. Waller then pleaded guilty to two aggravated kidnapping charges in exchange for dual, 30-year prison terms.

This account confirms my sense that police may have biased the witness identifications based on an assumption the police officer ID'd the right guy. He didn't, of course, but the fact that an officer made the first identification means investigators probably were dismissive of any notion Waller didn't do it. Add three corroborating eyewitnesses mistakenly identifying him, sprinkle in some shoddy forensic science, and Waller's case becomes a near perfect recipe for wrongful conviction.


Anonymous said...

I know DAs have some immunity to liability but it seems as if this would be actionable by the victim or the innocent man jailed. Surely the DA doesn't have absolute immunity from his idiotic actions which so damaged others and thwarted justice being done.

Anonymous said...

I think it would be great if someone would round up all those who were wrongfully imprisoned and have them tell their stories of imprisonment.

The bold, honest truth about life in prison. I think most people would be horrified, especially when they realize it happens to innocent people.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I agree, Jami - that would make a really neat oral history project.

And to the first commenter, as a practical matter everybody has immunity in most wrongful convictions among prosecutors and police, and statutes of limitations typically eliminate any narrow legal claims that might otherwise apply. Most of these cases take years before they guy is finally cleared.

Anonymous said...

There are only two avenues of recourse that I can think of this early in the morning, against DA like Bill Hill. One is to vote him out of office; the other is to file a grievance against him with the State Bar of Texas. Neither is very satisfactory from the point of view of his victim.

I suppose that if racial bias could be shown, or some other kind of intention to harm a wrongfully incarcerated person, or to protect the real perpetrator, or to cover up wrong doing by the DA, then the DA might be susceptible to a criminal charge of obstruction of justice, abuse of office, or something similar.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a lawyer, but it amazes me that DA's know a man is innocent and want him to remian in prison. How do these people live with themselves? Can any of you guys share any insights that lead to someone intentionally imprisoning a, innocent man? What's the motivation?