Justice delayed: Texas man first to be cleared by DNA review of old rape kits

Michael Phillips, wrongfully imprisoned for 12 years, had given up trying to prove his innocence of a rape conviction. He is being exonerated because the Dallas Conviction Integrity Unit began a systematic review of DNA evidence in past cases.

Michael Phillips looks to the gallery during a court hearing in Dallas on Friday, July 25, 2014. Texas prosecutors said a project to review untested rape kits proved the innocence of a Phillips who says he pleaded guilty to a 1990 rape because his attorney advised him to avoid trial.

In a Dallas courtroom Friday morning, justice finally came to Michael Phillips, an African-American man who served 12 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. 

The Phillips exoneration is the first in the United States to result from a systematic review of old DNA evidence, rather than from an investigation prompted by a convicted person actively seeking to prove his innocence, reports the National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

“I never imagined I would live to see my name cleared.… I always told everyone I was innocent and now people will finally believe me,” Mr. Phillips said in a statement.

At the hearing Friday, Dallas County district attorney Craig Watkins formally sought Phillips' exoneration. State District Judge Gracie Lewis said his conviction should be vacated. The exoneration is expected to be formally approved by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in the next month or two, and then Phillips will have the option to apply for compensation. Texas offers $80,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment. Phillips is 57 and has struggled to find work and places to live since his release from prison in 2002. He is also struggling with illness.

Mr. Phillips pleaded guilty to the rape in 1990 when his defense attorney told him that, if he did not accept a guilty plea, a jury would give him a longer sentence, according to a report by the office of Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins. The 16-year-old white girl who had been raped lived at the same motel as Phillips, and although the rapist was wearing a mask, she said she had pulled it up and seen him, the report notes. She picked Phillips out of a lineup.

She wasn’t the first person to make a mistake in identifying her attacker. Out of 34 exonerations that have occurred in Dallas since Mr. Watkins formed a Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) in 2007 to examine past cases, 29 involved erroneous eyewitness identification.

During a review of untested rape kits from cases in 1990 that resulted in conviction, researchers working with the CIU developed a DNA profile for the rapist in this case. No DNA sample had been collected from Phillips because it was not routine at the time, so researchers could not immediately determine his guilt or innocence.

They uploaded the crime-scene DNA profile to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) in 2011. Earlier this year, a match showed up in the system. Lee Marvin Banks, who had been convicted for another crime, was shown to be the source of the DNA in the rape kit.

Prosecutors interviewed Mr. Banks, who denied the rape but admitted to living at the same motel as the victim at the time. They also interviewed the victim. They concluded that Banks was the rapist, though they cannot prosecute because the statute of limitations was five years at the time of the crime.

“DNA tells the truth, so this was another case of eyewitness misidentification where one individual’s life was wrongfully snatched and a violent criminal was allowed to go free. We apologize to Michael Phillips for a criminal justice system that failed him,” Mr. Watkins said in a statement.

In 2004, Phillips was convicted for failing to register as a sex offender. At that time, he challenged the original rape conviction in court, raising the idea that DNA testing could exonerate him. But the court denied his request. The CIU did not know about Phillips’s attempt to show his innocence until after the new DNA analysis.

Watkins set up the CIU to investigate claims of innocence or cases where evidence of additional perpetrators has surfaced. But several years ago, Samuel Gross, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations and a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, approached Watkins with the idea of systematically testing DNA in rape kits that had resulted in convictions. Along with Professor Colin Starger of the University of Baltimore School of Law, he volunteered to work with the CIU and staff at the Southwest Institute of Forensic Science, the lab that stores biological samples from crime scenes.

Phillips’s case shows such systematic reviews “can be done … without making it an overwhelming project … but with existing resources,” Professor Gross says, though not all labs store evidence long-term.

Several other prosecutors’ offices, including in New York City, Detroit, and Cleveland, have started teams to review convictions that have been called into question. But this ongoing systematic review “is an amazing project, and Mr. Watkins approved this when I don’t know if any other DA offices would have,” says Dallas Assistant District Attorney Cynthia Garza.

Ms. Garza talked with the rape victim about the exonerating DNA. “At first she was a little bit, maybe, in shock. But then, almost immediately, she started crying and said that it was terrible that Mr. Phillips had gone to prison.”

The woman continues to struggle with sleeping at night because of the trauma of the brutal rape, says Garza, who put her in touch with the victims’ services coordinator so she can get counseling, if she wants to.

While Banks cannot be prosecuted, Texas did change its rules about statutes of limitations in 2001, Garza says. Now, the normal window for prosecuting sexual assault is 10 years, but if there is DNA that can’t be matched with anyone identifiable at the time of the crime, there is no time limit for prosecution, if that DNA is linked with a suspect in the future, Garza says.

The series of exonerations produced by Watkins’s office “certainly gives people a lot of hope,” says Juanita Wallace, president of the Dallas NAACP. But there is still a lot of concern about African-Americans being racially profiled by police, represented by under-resourced public attorneys, and dogged for years by arrest records. Then, as taxpayers, they have to pay for wrongful convictions, she says. “We’re saying, get the thing right up front. We really don’t need lives being destroyed.”

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