Dallas County D.A. Looking to Free the Innocent

Share
Copy

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins has only been on the job for six weeks -- but he has taken the unusual step of turning over all his files, from every felony conviction prosecuted in Dallas dating back to 1970, because he is concerned innocent men and women may be in prison.

Twelve men in just the last five years have been exonerated in Dallas County.

"I will make sure it never happens again," Watkins says. "We are going to make sure everyone it has happened to in the past gets out of jail."

Dallas County leads the nation in the number of inmates who have been exonerated.

"My position as the new district attorney is to not only put the bad guys in jail," Watkins says, "but to also be just and fair. It is my responsibility to bring credibility to this office."

Watkins is allowing a group called the "Innocence Project" to comb through more than 350 cases. Law school students in Texas are sifting through files that in many cases have been around longer than they have been alive.

Natalie Roetzel, a third-year law school student from Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth, is donating her time to the Innocence Project.

"No one is getting class credit," Roetzel says. "No one is getting paid. You have to put in the work. You put in the man-hours to get the results."

Many of the students examining old files say that in some of the Dallas County cases, the accused did not have a chance.

"You will see things that you just cannot believe will happen in a governmental system," says Harmony Schuerman, a third-year law student.

Their hard work helped free 58-year-old Larry Fuller, who was wrongfully imprisoned for 18 years. DNA tests proved he could not have been the man who committed rape.

Fuller has received apologies from officials at the highest levels in Texas, and his attorneys have told him he may receive nearly half a million dollars for the wrongful conviction.

ABC News spent the day with Fuller, who now enjoys his freedom by riding a bicycle to his job in Dallas.

"The stigma has been removed," Fuller says. "There is no bitterness. This is what life is about. I am not angry about the past. I learned a great deal from the past."

Attorney Barry Scheck, the co-founder of the Innocence Project, was at Fuller's side as he walked out of court.

"These are the lucky cases … because there is DNA in them that we can find and we can test," Scheck says. "Ninety percent of the cases, there is no DNA."

The Innocence Project pays for the DNA testing. Dallas taxpayers are not footing the bill to re-examine past convictions.

District Attorney Watkins is pleased that victims' rights groups support his decision to re-examine previous convictions pointing out, "What you get when you send someone to jail that didn't commit the crime, the person that really did it is still out there, probably still committing other crimes. So it only makes sense to do what we are doing."

It is unusual for a district attorney to take such sweeping action, but Watkins says, "I got to look at myself in the mirror every night and be satisfied with what I see. I have to right this wrong for the citizens of Dallas County."

Join the Discussion
You are using an outdated version of Internet Explorer. Please click here to upgrade your browser in order to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...