April 16, 2008, 4:55PM
DNA frees man who spent almost 23 years in prison
By JEFF CARLTON Associated Press Writer
DALLAS — After spending nearly 23 years in prison for a rape he did not commit, Thomas Clifford McGowan on Wednesday heard the words that set him free.
"Words cannot express how sorry I am for the last 23 years," said state district Judge Susan Hawk, moments after overturning his convictions. "I believe you can walk out of here a free man."
McGowan, 49, won his freedom after a DNA test earlier this month proved what he had always professed: that he did not rape a Dallas-area woman in 1985 and then burglarize her apartment. He was convicted of both crimes in separate trials in 1985 and 1986 and sentenced to life each time. The primary evidence against him turned out to be eyewitness misidentification by the rape victim.
"I've been living a life of a living hell and my nightmare is finally over with," McGowan said after the hearing. "This is the first day of my life. I'm going to go forward."
Hawk's ruling, which now must be affirmed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, makes McGowan the 17th Dallas man since 2001 to have his conviction cast aside because of DNA testing. That's the most of any county in the nation, according to the Innocence Project, a New York-based legal center that specializes in overturning wrongful convictions.
Overall, 31 people have been formally exonerated through DNA testing in Texas, also a national high. That does not include McGowan and at least two others whose exonerations will not become official until Gov. Rick Perry grants pardons or the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issues its rulings.
The crowded courtroom included dozens of McGowan's family members. Also attending were three Dallas County men who had been wrongly convicted and eventually exonerated by DNA testing. They greeted McGowan with handshakes and hugs, and one gave him a $100 bill to "get him started."
McGowan, wearing a button-down shirt and slacks, looked trim and relieved. He said he prayed frequently and was benefiting from some "powerful forces." While in prison, one of McGowan's sisters died, and he said he missed watching his sibling's children grow up.
"I know God forgives, so hey, I've got to forgive, too," McGowan said. "It's not going to benefit me to be harboring anger or resentment."
McGowan's wrongful imprisonment began in May 1985 when a Richardson woman returned home and came upon a burglar in her apartment. The man bound her hands with his belt, raped her at knifepoint and then loaded his car with several items stolen from her apartment, according to court documents.
Police eventually presented the woman with a photo array of seven men. She picked out McGowan's photo, saying she "thought" he was the attacker. But police told her she had to be certain and "couldn't just think it was him," she testified in court. It was then that she said McGowan was "definitely" the attacker, according to court documents.
Just a few words from a police officer can significantly influence whether a witness identifies the wrong person, Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck said.
"It's not that the police officer involved in this matter was intentionally doing anything wrong. He wasn't," Scheck said. "That kind of a forced choice response ... is very, very damaging."
More exonerations are expected in Dallas County, where District Attorney Craig Watkins has set up a program in which law students, supervised by the Innocence Project of Texas, are reviewing hundreds of cases in which convicts have requested DNA testing to prove their innocence. About 10 Dallas County cases are in various stages of investigations and DNA testing, and another exoneration is likely within the next few weeks, prosecutors said.
Watkins said he plans to lobby other prosecutors to put in place similar programs.
"This should not be a pilot program that lasts two or three years," Watkins said.
The DNA from McGowan's case yielded a full profile that is now being run through state and federal databases, assistant prosecutor Mike Ware said. If a match is found, it could identify the true rapist.
||Truth in Justice