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In Dallas it's not big news anymore when someone is exonerated by DNA evidence. It's happened 34 times in Dallas counties since 2001. Michael Phillips is the thirty-fourth, and he did make news today. That's because he's believed to be the first person exonerated without asking for the test.
As NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports, Phillips served only 12 years because he pleaded guilty to a rape he didn't commit.
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PHILLIPS WILSON: Yes, your Honor. (Unintelligible), Russell Wilson.
WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: There are not many cheery occasions in criminal courts, but this morning in Judge Gracie Lewis's courtroom, packed with reporters, well-wishers and other exonerated men, joy filled the room. Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins walked over to where convicted rapist Michael Phillips sat in his wheelchair and apologized for the state of Texas.
CRAIG WATKINS: This is a great day for Mr. Phillips, but this is a terrible day for our justice system. We took 12 years of this man's life. He's got Sickle Cell.
GOODWYN: On September 28,1990, a 16-year-old white girl was raped in a Dallas motel by a black man wearing a ski mask. During the assault, the victim was able to raise the ski mask just a little and believes she recognized 33-year-old Michael Phillips, who also lived at the motel. She picked his picture out of a photo lineup. Turns out, she was mistaken. Nevertheless, on the advice of his attorney, Phillips pleaded guilty and agreed to serve 12 years. He served each and every one.
SAMUEL GROSS: It's a depressing story in so many ways. I'm very happy that we found this out while he is still alive.
GOODWYN: University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross is the man responsible for Michael Phillips' exoneration. It was Gross who suggested to the Dallas DA that instead of waiting for the wrongly convicted, to ask for their DNA evidence to be tested; the DA's office should proactively test likely cases. And Gross volunteered to do the work for free. So Craig Watkins agreed, and in that first batch of cases tested was Michael Phillips.
GROSS: I wasn't surprised that it had happened because I thought it is likely that we'd run across one or two cases like this. But there was nothing about Mr. Phillips case before the results came in that showed that another person had committed the rape. In the other cases where the DNA testing was done, it proved that the defendants were in fact guilty. In his case, it proved that he was innocent.
GOODWYN: In 2004, Phillips had made one futile request of the Dallas DA's office - to have the DNA evidence in his case tested. Then Dallas District Attorney, Bill Hill, never responded, so Phillips just let go.
WATKINS: I think at the time, the culture of the office was that we have to protect convictions. And so it was less about trying to get to the truth and more about trying to protect convictions.
GOODWYN: Dallas district attorney Craig Watkins is the first black DA in Texas history. Before being elected in 2006, he'd spent 12 years as a Dallas defense lawyer, but says, being a defense attorney was not what shaped his views about guilt and innocence.
WATKINS: I think it was less about being a defense attorney, and more about being an African American, which tells me that, you know, law enforcement needed to be changed.
GOODWYN: For most Americans, a defendant who pleads guilty is evidence enough that that defendant is guilty. But Watkins says, that's hogwash; that six out of the 34 Dallas defendants who've been proved innocent by DNA evidence pleaded guilty anyway. And that he thinks Phillips, back in 1990, made a wise choice.
WATKINS: You know, at the time, back in the nineties, probably. Whenever you have a woman that's testifying against you as a victim it's going to be difficult for you. But when you have an African American defendant and there is a white woman that's testifying against that African American male defendant, it's doubly more difficult for you to get folks to believe you didn't commit the crime.
GOODWYN: Who did commit the crime? Another black man who lived at the motel, Lee Marvin Banks. Banks denies it, but has no explanation for how his semen got inside the victim. The statute of limitations has run out.
Michael Phillips is so ill with sickle cell anemia, his condition is day-to-day. As he was wheeled out of the courtroom, he knew who was responsible for this sudden turn of fate, and it isn't the law professor from the University of Michigan or the DA from Dallas.
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MICHAEL PHILLIPS: It's the father. It's the father. Pick up his book. It's called the Bible. That's all I've got to say.
GOODWYN: If Phillips is right, the father, the law professor and the district attorney continue their exoneration work. They're on to the next batch of cases.
Wade Goodwyn. NPR News, Dallas.
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