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
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
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,
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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.”