New York Times

January 18, 2007

A 12th Dallas Convict Is Exonerated by DNA

HOUSTON, Jan. 17 — A 50-year-old Dallas man whose conviction of raping a boy in 1982 cost him nearly half his life in prison and on parole won a court ruling Wednesday declaring him innocent. He said he was not angry, “because the Lord has given me so much.”

The parolee, James Waller, was exonerated by DNA testing, the 12th person since 2001 whose conviction in Dallas County has been overturned long after the fact as a result of genetic evidence, lawyers said.

“Nowhere else in the nation have so many individual wrongful convictions been proven in one county in such a short span,” said Barry C. Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, the legal clinic that championed Mr. Waller’s case. In fact, Mr. Scheck said, those 12 such instances are more than have occurred anywhere else except the entire states of New York and Illinois since the nation’s first DNA exoneration, in 1989.

In the aftermath of the new evidence, prosecutors had joined defense lawyers in calling for the clearing of Mr. Waller, who spent more than 10 years behind bars before he was paroled in 1993.

“I’m sorry that happened to you, man,” Craig Watkins, the county’s new district attorney, told Mr. Waller on Wednesday, shaking his hand in the Dallas courtroom where a judge later approved a motion to vacate the conviction. That motion now goes to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for formal approval.

Mr. Waller broke down once at the hearing, when describing how his car crashed on the way to a court proceeding in 2001, an accident that killed his pregnant wife, Doris, and the unborn daughter they had wanted to call Grace. “I said, ‘Well, I don’t want to live no more,’ ” he recalled, mopping his face with a tissue.

One of his lawyers, Nina Morrison, patted him on the back. “He lost 10 years 11 months and 3 days of his liberty literally picking cotton in the fields for no pay,” she told the court. “His perseverance is an inspiration to all of us.”

The judge, John C. Creuzot of Criminal District Court, sought to console Mr. Waller, who stood before him in a tan suit, a white shirt and a tie. “A lot of times we are tested in life, and you certainly had a terrible test,” Judge Creuzot said. “On behalf of any and all public officials at that time, I want to apologize.”

Earlier in the day, the Innocence Project provided synopses of the county’s dozen DNA exonerations. “Nobody knows the reason why we have 12-and-counting here in Dallas, but we’ll find out the answers,” Mr. Scheck said. One Texas lawmaker, State Senator Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat, has introduced a bill that would establish a Texas Innocence Commission to study exonerations for ways of eliminating wrongful convictions.

The case against Mr. Waller was largely based on the 12-year-old victim’s identification of him, court papers show.

Around 6 a.m. on Nov. 2, 1982, the boy, identified only as Jay S., was alone in his family’s dark apartment with his 7-year-old brother when he was sodomized by an intruder he described as a black man about 5-foot-8 and weighing 150 pounds, his lower face concealed by a red bandana.

By the boy’s account, he heard the voice of his attacker that night at a 7-Eleven near his home, and turned to see Mr. Waller, who was then 25 and lived with his family in the same apartment complex as the victim, the only black family there. Although there were discrepancies in the boy’s account — Mr. Waller is almost 6-foot-4 and was heavy — and although Mr. Waller presented witnesses saying he was home at the time, he was convicted in 46 minutes and sentenced to 30 years. He won parole in 1993 but had to register as a sex offender.

He had begun petitioning for retesting of the state’s rape evidence in 1989, and redoubled his efforts in 2001 after Texas passed a law granting post-conviction access to DNA testing. Results of hair testing appeared to rule out Mr. Waller as the attacker, but the Court of Criminal Appeals found it inconclusive.

Still, “the Lord kept pushing me because I wanted my name back,” Mr. Waller said Wednesday.

Last month the Innocence Project, through use of a previously unavailable technology called Y-STR DNA, found that genetic material recovered from the victim conclusively excluded Mr. Waller and the victim and could have come only from someone else.

Mr. Waller has started a lawn care business, but remains on parole pending the formal action of the appeals court and must shy from all contact with children. “It has been a long struggle for me,” he said. “They look at you like you’re an animal.”

Mr. Watkins, Dallas County’s first African-American district attorney, took office two weeks ago in a Democratic sweep. “I can say I’m sorry all day,” he told Mr. Waller in court. “I know that doesn’t mean much to you, but I can guarantee to you in the future when I’m the district attorney we will insist that we will not send anyone who’s innocent to prison.”

“The sad thing,” he said, “is the person who actually did this crime is still out there on the streets.”

Gretel C. Kovach contributed reporting from Dallas.


Recent Cases
Truth in Justice