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The Nation

Texas men's innocence puts a county on trial

DNA is expected to clear a convicted rapist, as it has 3 of his friends.

April 09, 2007|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

DALLAS — Many men claim innocence when staring at iron bars. But James Giles knew he was no rapist -- and he believed three fellow Texas prisoners who told him they too were wrongly convicted of rape.

They shared their despair over games of chess and dominoes, worked on longshot appeals together in the law library, and dreamed of the day they would win exoneration from a justice system that failed them.

It has taken nearly 25 years, but with the assistance of DNA testing, the men -- all African American -- are proving they are indeed innocent. Two were freed from prison. A third was cleared last month, years after serving his sentence. Today, Giles is expected to clear his name and become the 13th man from Dallas County to prove with genetic testing that he was wrongly imprisoned.

Giles, who spent 10 years in prison and was paroled in 1993, is seeking to vacate his 1983 conviction. New evidence suggests that another man -- also named James Giles -- committed the rape. Dallas County prosecutors more than two decades ago knew about the other James Giles, who lived across the street from the victim, but never told Giles' defense.

"I lost everything in the world," said Giles, 53. "I just thank God we finally got someone to see that I was the wrong guy."

Giles struggled to rebuild his life after he got out of prison, branded a rapist. The skilled construction laborer had a hard time finding menial jobs, and his wife, who stuck with him through his prison term, eventually sought a divorce.

The Dallas County district attorney was scheduled to personally apologize to Giles today. The three wrongly convicted men whom Giles befriended in prison will be cheering in the courtroom.

The wrongful convictions of these four men are some of the most dramatic examples of prosecutions in the Lone Star State that have come under increasing scrutiny.

Dallas County has had more people exonerated by DNA than all but three entire states. Texas, which leads the nation in convictions overturned by genetic testing, has had 27, Illinois, 26, and New York, 23. California has had nine exonerations.

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Revisiting cases

With countless current and former Texas prisoners clamoring for testing to clear their names -- more than 430 in Dallas County -- law enforcement officials predict that the number of overturned convictions will grow exponentially.

Texas prosecutors have typically fought activists' attempts to revisit cases. But Dallas County Dist. Atty. Craig Watkins, the first African American elected to the office, has forged an unusual alliance with the Innocence Project, a New York-based group that uses DNA testing to challenge convictions.

Watkins has proclaimed "a new day in Dallas" and is promising to right past wrongs of his office -- particularly the many disputed convictions during the reign of Henry Wade, Dallas County's top prosecutor from 1951 to 1987.

"The mentality of the office at that time was, 'I don't care if there is some doubt, let's make sure we keep up our conviction rate,' " Watkins said. Wade died in 2001, and is best known for his role in Roe vs. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized abortion.

"Back then, if you sent someone to jail who was possibly innocent, it was a badge of honor," Watkins said.

Watkins' office helped reinvestigate the Giles case. The exoneration request must ultimately be approved by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, but with Watkins' support, that is considered a formality.

Nearly all the Dallas DNA exonerations have involved men who were convicted of sex crimes based on dubious witness accounts. Most are African Americans -- Giles will be the 10th.

Unlike many other jurisdictions, including Houston, Dallas County preserved blood samples and other evidence collected decades ago, a stroke of luck that is allowing felons to seek a review of their convictions.

"The biggest tragedy when the wrong person goes behind bars is that the right person got away with it," said state Sen. Rodney Ellis. "We need to make sure the scales of justice are balanced."

Ellis is offering numerous proposals in response to the exonerations, including increased payments to the wrongly convicted, and the creation of an Innocence Commission that would review the wrongful convictions for signs of systemic problems. Giles is to testify at a hearing on the proposals Tuesday in Austin.

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Giles' conviction

Giles was found guilty in 1983 of participating in the gang rape of a pregnant woman. The victim picked him out of a photo lineup, though he was bigger and about a decade older than the teenage assailant she initially described to police. That identification was the only evidence linking him to the crime. The victim never saw him in person until the trial. He was the only black man in the courtroom besides a bailiff.

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