Dallas Morning News

DA: Man wrongly convicted in '82 rape
He could be 14th cleared after DNA points to another

09:59 PM CDT on Sunday, September 16, 2007
By JENNIFER EMILY / The Dallas Morning News

The Dallas County district attorney's office says that a man sent to prison for a 1982 rape and burglary was wrongly convicted and that it will work with his attorneys to have his name cleared.

DNA evidence shows that Steven Phillips did not rape a woman he was convicted of sexually assaulting and burglarizing in two separate trials.

But he would remain in prison unless cleared of another sex crime. He pleaded guilty to eight and was found guilty of three other sex-crime charges in the early 1980s.

For the exoneration to go forward, state District Judge Ernie White would have to find that the DNA results show Mr. Phillips did not commit the three crimes for which there is DNA evidence. Then, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals must approve the exoneration.

Mr. Phillips would become the 14th person from Dallas County since 2001 to be exonerated based on DNA testing. Dallas County has more DNA exonerations than any other county in the country.

"It's pretty exciting, and it won't be the last," said Nina Morrison, an attorney with the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization that seeks to exonerate wrongly convicted people through DNA evidence.
Another Dallas Exoneration

What happened: DNA evidence from a 1982 rape and burglary doesn't match Steven Phillips.

What's next: Prosecutors say their priority is tracking down the real assailant by checking the DNA against state and national databases. Because Mr. Phillips also pleaded guilty to other sex crimes police believed were committed by the same person, a court may have to decide if the DNA also clears him of those crimes.

Mr. Phillips is the first person cleared by DNA tests opposed by previous District Attorney Bill Hill but later ordered by District Attorney Craig Watkins after he took office in January.

Mike Ware, who oversees conviction integrity at the district attorney's office, said Mr. Watkins agreed to the DNA testing because he wanted to find the real rapist if the results showed Mr. Phillips was not the attacker.

Mr. Phillips was convicted based on eyewitness testimony.

The three convictions that could be overturned because of DNA evidence all arose from one attack. The woman who was raped could see only part of her attacker's face because it was almost covered by the hood of his gray sweatshirt and other fabric, according to the Innocence Project.

But the woman spoke at length about her attacker's "striking blue eyes." Other women also told authorities that they remembered the attacker's blue eyes.

Mr. Phillips' eyes are green.

Mr. Phillips also pleaded guilty to eight charges for sex crimes that police said at the time were committed by the same man who committed the rape, said Mr. Ware.

Ms. Morrison said Mr. Phillips simply gave up and pleaded guilty to those charges.

"He faced more prison time if convicted and had already lost two jury trials," she said. "Even though Mr. Phillips maintained his innocence, he thought it was better to take a plea bargain for less time."

Ms. Morrison said although there is no DNA evidence in those other cases, he could be cleared in those, too.

"From the very beginning, the police said all of these crimes were committed by the same man," Ms. Morrison said. "DNA now proves Steven Phillips was not that man."

But Mr. Ware said the district attorney's office is not prepared to agree Mr. Phillips did not commit the other crimes. Prosecutors are still investigating the cases to which he pleaded guilty.

"If the police were correct, that it was one person ... then it could impact those cases," Mr. Ware said.

The issue may ultimately be decided by a judge, he said.

DNA evidence can exonerate someone for related crimes that were committed by the same person even if there is DNA for only one of them, the Innocence Project said.

After the exoneration, Mr. Phillips would be serving time for only one crime; he has finished serving his sentences for the others, Ms. Morrison said. That remaining case is a May 1982 assault that is similar to the one that DNA shows he did not commit. It occurred on the same day.

In that case, a man approached a woman who was sunbathing near the pool. The man forced her to take off her clothes and masturbate. The man also touched her genitals.

Mr. Phillips was sentenced to 40 years.

Mr. Phillips had no criminal record from before the string of sex crimes, although he admitted to police that he had been a peeping tom.

Mr. Phillips is also an admitted sex addict who cheated on his wife with many women. Ms. Morrison said he has sought addiction treatment in prison.

"He hasn't lived a perfect life," Ms. Morrison said. "He has done a lot of work to become a better citizen."

During a six-week period in April and May 1982, a single attacker was believed to have victimized as many as 61 people at apartment complexes, gyms and spas in Dallas and Kansas City, according to newspaper accounts and the Innocence Project. Many of the crimes included several victims at one location.

In those incidents, an armed man threatened to shoot his victims. In some cases, he left after forcing them to strip. He forced others to pose nude. He fondled them or forced them to fondle others.

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