DALLAS — In a case that has renewed questions about the quality of Texas justice, a man who spent 10 years behind bars for the rape of a boy has become the 12th person in Dallas County to be cleared by DNA evidence.
That is more DNA exonerations than in all of California, and more than in Florida, too. In fact, Dallas County alone has more such cases than all but three states — a situation one Texas lawmaker calls an "international embarrassment."
James Waller, 50, was exonerated by a judge earlier this week and received an apology from the district attorney's office after a new type of DNA testing on hair and semen showed he was not the rapist who attacked a 12-year-old a boy living in Waller's apartment building in 1983. The boy had been the chief witness against him.
"It's been a long, horrible road," said Waller, who has been out on parole since 1993.
Only New York, Illinois and Texas have had more DNA exonerations than Dallas County, which has a population of 2.3 million, according to the Innocence Project, a New York-based legal center that specializes in overturning wrongful convictions.
"These are appalling mistakes, and in the case of Dallas County, there have been so many," said Democratic state Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston, who is sponsoring a bill to create Texas Innocence Commission to scrutinize the state's criminal justice system.
A similar bill failed to reach the floor in the past two legislative sessions. But "my colleagues in the Senate, in particular, are beginning to see these are human lives we are talking about," Ellis said. "There are times when we make mistakes, and when we do, we ought to be big enough to admit it."
Since the nation's first DNA exoneration in 1989, 26 defendants have been cleared in Illinois, including 11 in Chicago's Cook County, according to the Innocence Project. There have been 21 exonerations each in Texas and New York, nine in California and six in Florida, the organization said.
In Dallas County, about 400 prisoners who filed wrongful-conviction claims have received DNA testing, leading to the 12 exonerations, said Trista Allen, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office. New District Attorney Craig Watkins, who took office two weeks ago, is determined to look into the underlying causes, she said.
"DNA testing is to make sure innocent folks are not in jail," Allen said. "If you are not guilty, we want to get you out of jail. We're not going to be the DA that stands in the way."
Trouble with eyewitnesses?
Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, said the number of exonerations in Dallas County "demands a closer look and statewide action." He said there is no clear reason there have been so many wrongful convictions in Dallas, but "many of the cases have to do with eyewitness identification."
That was true with Waller. A day after the rape, the boy was at a convenience store when he heard Waller's voice and became convinced Waller was the man who attacked him in his apartment.
Earlier, the boy had told police that he never saw the attacker face-to-face and that the man had worn a bandanna covering most of his face. Waller was also heavier and taller than the man described by the youngster.
Waller and his family were the only black residents of the apartment complex, according to the Innocence Project.
He began seeking DNA testing in 1989. Since his parole, he has had to register as a sex offender, but his lawyers are trying to get that requirement lifted.
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