2 men wrongly convicted in 1997 Dallas murder exonerated
07:04 AM CDT on Thursday, October 22, 2009
By DIANE JENNINGS / The Dallas Morning News
Two men are expected to be released Friday after spending 12 years in prison for a murder they did not commit, the latest in a string of exonerations in Dallas County. Like most of the other wrongful convictions, these cases also hinged on faulty eyewitness identification.
Unlike most of the previous 20 Dallas County exonerations, however, these two were cleared without DNA evidence.
The most recent cases also are unusual because two student groups, the University of Texas at Arlington Innocence Network and the Actual Innocence Clinic at the University of Texas at Austin, championed the case for years before law enforcement officials re-examined the case.
"It feels wonderful," said Natalie Ellis, a criminal justice major at the University of Texas at Arlington who has worked on the case daily for more than a year. "I'd have to say out of all the days I've had in my life so far – this is tops."
Two other men in custody, who were also originally investigated, are now suspects in the killing. Authorities say one of them gave a detailed confession to the crime after the case was reopened.
Claude Alvin Simmons Jr., 54, and Christopher Shun Scott, 39, were each sentenced to life in prison for the April 7, 1997, shooting death of Alfonso Aguilar during a home-invasion robbery. Their convictions were based primarily on the eyewitness testimony of Aguilar's wife, Celia Escobedo, who was present in their Love Field area home when the killing occurred.
That identification was mistaken, said Mike Ware, head of the Dallas County District Attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit.
Hardy is currently in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice serving 30 years for an aggravated robbery conviction. He also has a history of drug charges. Anderson, who was picked up in the Houston area Tuesday night, has several drug charges on his record.
During the re-investigation of the case, Hardy gave an "extensive confession," according to the district attorney's office, detailing his and Anderson's roles in the offense. The confession also cleared Simmons and Scott from any role in the slaying.
Both men were investigated at the time of the crime, authorities said, and Anderson was even included in a photo lineup. But Escobedo did not pick him out. Anderson also reportedly confessed to a girlfriend, and Adam Seidel, Simmons' attorney, tried to introduce that information and other witnesses implicating Anderson at trial.
But the judge, Janice Warder, did not allow the testimony to be introduced. The jury came back with a guilty verdict in six minutes.
"Considering that all of the jury got to hear in this case was the eyewitness identifying Mr. Simmons during the trial, then the length of deliberation wasn't a shock," Seidel said. "But I will also say it was extremely frustrating to try the case when the three witnesses that my private investigator located were not allowed to testify."
Warder, who served on the bench for 14 years and is now the Cooke County district attorney, said she doesn't remember the case. Her decision to not allow the testimony was upheld on appeal.
In 1986, when Warder was a Dallas County assistant district attorney, she prosecuted a case in which she was later ruled to have withheld beneficial evidence to the defense in a rape-murder trial. A judge last year ruled that the defendant in that case – Clay Chabot – should get a new trial.
Speaking about the Simmons and Scott case, Warder said Wednesday that she was "extremely saddened" to hear that two men had been wrongfully convicted but glad that the system worked to "exonerate the innocent and identify the guilty parties so that they'll be brought to justice."
The road to clearing Simmons and Scott began more than three years ago when Simmons' family wrote letters to the student groups. Both organizations began investigating the cases, said Bill Allison, co-director of the Austin center. Working together, the two groups investigated the cases, and then contacted the district attorney's office, which asked Dallas police to reopen the investigation.
"There are lots of cases that have been brought to our attention as possible innocence claims," Ware said. "For many reasons, this one seemed to have more red flags and credibility."
Student investigator Ellis said she "was supposed to be looking for DNA but as I started reading this case, there was no DNA in it. But there was clearly something there. I just knew this case had something in it. There were too many things that make you go 'hmm.' "
Ellis is thrilled with the outcome. She has visited the two wrongfully convicted men daily since they were brought back to Dallas County prior to their expected release Friday.
Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins labeled Wednesday "a day of celebration for law enforcement and public safety."Of the 20 DNA exonerations in Dallas County, all but one was the result of faulty eyewitness testimony. A Dallas Morning News investigation last year found discredited eyewitness identification procedures led to most of the wrongful convictions.
The Dallas Police Department has since changed the way it handles eyewitness identifications, implementing safeguards employed by few other cities, Chief David Kunkel said.
For instance, DPD no longer conducts "show up" identifications where witnesses are shown suspects in the field; and in January the department adopted a policy using the "sequential blind" method where someone who does not know which photo is the suspect's shows them to the witness one at a time.
"What we're doing in Dallas County should be a wake-up call to everybody in the criminal justice system," Kunkel said. "You're going to see county after county going through the same soul-searching."