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Texas man exonerated through DNA testing he didn’t know was going to happen

Phillips, center, with family nearby after his exoneration hearing. (Courtesy of the Dallas County District Attorney’s office.)

In 1990, Michael Phillips was convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl at a motel in Dallas, Tex., where they both lived. Phillips pleaded guilty because, he said later, his attorney told him that as a black man who had been accused of raping a white teenager, he should try to avoid a jury trial. He went to prison for a dozen years and, after his release, spent another six months in jail after failing to register as a sex offender.

Now, nearly a quarter of a century after he was convicted, Phillips’s name is being cleared. And, in an unusual twist, he didn’t even realize it was happening.

Hundreds of people have been exonerated through DNA testing, with 317 such post-conviction exonerations since 1989, according to the Innocence Project. This week, the office of Craig Watkins, the Dallas County district attorney, announced that Phillips, 57, was going to join their ranks.

Phillips, though, was not aware that DNA testing was going to prove his innocence, nor was he seeking such tests or pushing for an exoneration. He is the first person exonerated by a prosecutor’s office without doing these things, according to Watkins’s office and the National Registry of Exonerations.

“This is different from other exonerations…in a very important way,” said Samuel R. Gross, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations and a law professor at the University of Michigan. “The man who was exonerated, this wasn’t on his mind. He wasn’t thinking about it, he hadn’t thought about it.”

Instead, the first he heard about it was when someone from the Conviction Integrity Unit contacted him, Gross said. That unit was established by Watkins’s office in 2007 to review and investigate claims of innocence and other old cases. (Gross worked with the conviction integrity group and suggested the project that eventually resulted in Phillips’s exoneration.)

As part of the ongoing effort to review untested rape kits — without waiting for the convicted people to request such reviews — evidence from the 1990 rape was run through the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, which identified a different person as the actual rapist, Watkins said in a statement.

The woman who was raped partially pulled up the ski mask on her attacker, and she said she recognized Phillips. She also picked a photo of him out of a lineup. But after an investigation, Watkins’s office determined that the other man was the rapist.

“DNA tells the truth, so this was another case of eyewitness misidentification where one individual’s life was wrongfully snatched and a violent criminal was allowed to go free,” Watkins said in the statement. “We apologize to Michael Phillips for a criminal justice system that failed him.”

Meanwhile, Phillips had gotten out of prison in 2002, only to return to jail in 2004 for failing to register as a sex offender. (At the time, he mentioned DNA testing in petitions that were denied.)

“I never imagined I would live to see my name cleared,” Phillips, who suffers from sickle cell anemia and is living in nursing home, said in a statement released by Watkins’s office. “I always told everyone I was innocent and now people will finally believe me.”

The nature of Phillips’s exoneration is particularly noteworthy because so many people who are exonerated have had to spend considerable time making their cases. “Usually the people who have been exonerated have been working toward this for years,” Gross said.

At least 20 other people who had been exonerated came to the hearing in Dallas on Friday morning, Gross said.

A judge agreed Friday that Phillips should be exonerated, so the issue now goes to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. If he is formally exonerated, Phillips will be entitled to $80,000 for each year he was in prison, according to Texas law. The state has spent at least $65 million compensating wrongly convicted people since 1992.

There were 87 exonerations nationwide last year, according to a report issued by the National Registry of Exonerations. Only one in five cases last year involved DNA, pointing to the prevalence of less-dramatic exonerations that often don’t get public attention, the report noted.

“There is no way to tell from these cases whether we are getting better at avoiding wrongful convictions in the first place,” the report said. “It does seem, however, that we are working harder to identify the mistakes we made years ago and that we are catching more of them.”

My colleague Spencer S. Hsu has done extensive reporting on the flawed forensic work involved in the convictions of people who turned out to be innocent. In January, Hsu reported on the case of a D.C. man who spent nearly 30 years in prison for murder, only for it to emerge that discredited evidence was used in the man’s case. And earlier this week, a judge in Washington concluded that DNA evidence exonerated a man who spent 26 years in prison — the fifth time in as many years that prosecutors in the District acknowledged that earlier forensic evidence resulted in a conviction that should be overturned.

For much more, read Hsu’s report on how prosecutors failed to notify defendants or attorneys even after learning that flawed forensic work may have resulted in convictions.

This post has been updated to add the number of post-conviction exonerations since 1989.