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In Dallas, defusing a sociological bomb: Wrongful convictions

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Friday, January 7, 2011

Race still matters in America, and justice is not completely blind. Anyone who believes otherwise should examine the case of Cornelius Dupree Jr., who was ruled innocent Tuesday after spending 30 years in prison - almost his entire adult life - for a brutal carjacking and rape that he did not commit.

Dupree is just the latest of 21 inmates from the Dallas area, almost all of them black, who have been exonerated since a 2001 Texas law permitted DNA testing of the evidence against them. At least another 20 convicts from other parts of the state have similarly been cleared of their crimes. Imagine the wrongs that could be righted if every state had a law like the one in Texas - and if every jurisdiction saved years-old evidence the way Dallas does.

If you don't believe me, listen to Craig Watkins, the Dallas County district attorney who is waging a systematic crusade to uncover and redress these miscarriages of justice. Elected in 2006, Watkins is the first Democrat since 1986 - and the first African American ever - to hold the job. Last year, amid the Republican wave, he somehow managed to get reelected.

Of the inmates exonerated thus far, "we've had maybe three white guys," Watkins told me in a telephone interview. "All the rest are black, and all of them were wrongfully identified at trial. Eyewitness identification, on its own, is flawed. And then there's prosecutorial misconduct. You've got to talk about that, too."

Keep in mind that these are innocent men. It's not that re-examining the evidence has raised "reasonable doubt" about their convictions, and it's not that they are being freed on some technicality. According to the DNA, there's no doubt at all: They didn't do it.

Most of the Texas cases involve violent crimes that include sexual assault - which means that the perpetrators left DNA behind.

The assault for which Dupree was convicted took place on Nov. 23, 1979. A young couple had stopped at a liquor store to buy cigarettes and use a pay phone. Two armed men commandeered the couple's car, kicked the man out, raped the woman and drove away. A week later, Dupree and another man, Anthony Massingill, were arrested not far from the crime scene; officers said they resembled two men who were being sought for a similar crime.

The rape victim identified Dupree and Massingill in a photo lineup, although her companion was unable to identify either man. At trial, both victims identified Dupree as one of the assailants.

Dupree always claimed innocence, but his appeals were turned down by the courts. In 2006, his case was accepted by the Innocence Project, a New York-based legal center that has represented inmates nationwide in wrongful-conviction cases.

Meanwhile, Watkins - a former defense lawyer - took office and quickly established a Conviction Integrity Unit to examine hundreds of cases in which inmates' requests for new DNA testing had been denied by the previous district attorney. Watkins is one of the few prosecutors nationwide to welcome and support the Innocence Project's interventions.

He told me that 18 of the Dallas exonerations have come on his watch. In quite a few of the cases he examines, the defendant turns out to be guilty.

The mentality of prosecutors is "convictions, convictions, convictions," Watkins said. "Really, it is the job of a district attorney to seek justice. If there's a person who was wrongfully convicted, it's my job to make it right."

Testing of the evidence used to convict Dupree revealed DNA that came from two unidentified men - and no DNA at all from Dupree or Massingill. Since there were only two attackers, Dupree had been telling the truth. He was innocent.

Dupree won parole last July, after three decades behind bars, and was a free man at the time of his exoneration. He was eligible to be released in 2004 but would have had to attend a treatment program for sex offenders; he refused, seeing participation as an admission of guilt. Massingill remains in prison on a conviction in an unrelated case, now also being reexamined.

It's an explosive combination - African American men, false allegations of rape, eyewitness testimony that proves to be wrong, years of unjust punishment for innocent men. Craig Watkins is proving that this sociological bomb can be defused with a combination of science and integrity. Prosecutors around the nation should follow his courageous example.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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