CrimProf Blog

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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

In cases of justice gone wrong, Dallas is willing to make it right

Steven Charles Phillips walked out of the courthouse this week in what has become something of a familiar ritual, even a cliché.

A wrongfully convicted man free at last, surrounded by joyful, tearful relatives – a mother grown old, children grown to adulthood. The obligatory what-will-you-do-first questions and the sweetly sentimental answers about fishing or home cooking or playing with the grandkids. The corny jokes about getting used to cellphones and the Internet.

Yet the atmosphere is heavy with the awful, nearly visceral horror of undeserved imprisonment. The story evokes the gothic misery of a real-life Count of Monte Cristo or the Dickensian sorrow of Alexandre Manette, whose lost years in the Bastille set the stage for A Tale of Two Cities.

And so many of these dark stories are here, on our front doorstep, in Dallas County. Mr. Phillips, whose ankle monitor was still beeping during his exoneration hearing, is one of 18 Dallas County defendants proven innocent through virtually incontestable DNA evidence since 2001.

The only debate really left about the validity of DNA is the numerical degree of its infallibility. It is creating a not-always-comfortable evolutionary change in the criminal-justice system by highlighting the slender but ever-present margin for human error in eyewitness testimony, investigative techniques and prosecutorial practices.

There are a lot of questions still to be answered about how and why these errors occur. But it's sometimes dismaying to see Dallas so prominently cited for its wrongful-conviction rate, to hear cynical references to "Texas justice" in general and "Dallas justice" in particular as shorthand for unfair and abusive criminal-justice tactics.

So there was a certain comfort this week in the words of Innocence Project attorney Barry Scheck, who is probably the most visible face of the nationwide movement to clear wrongfully convicted prisoners. [Mark Godsey]

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