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Wrongfully convicted Texas trio exonerated in 1994 robbery

April 06, 2012|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske
  • Dallas Dist. Atty. Craig Watkins has worked to exonerate those wrongly convicted of crimes in Texas.
Dallas Dist. Atty. Craig Watkins has worked to exonerate those wrongly… (LM Otero / Associated Press )

Reporting from Houston — Three men convicted of purse snatching -- one of whom was sentenced to 99 years in prison -- were exonerated Friday in Dallas. They are the latest examples of men who have been wrongly convicted of crimes in Texas.

Darryl Washington, Marcus Lashun Smith and Shakara Robertson were arrested in November 1994 and charged with aggravated robbery. The victim could not identify them, but witnesses who gave chase claimed the trio was responsible.

As a result, a jury convicted Washington, who received the 99-year sentence, while Smith and Robertson accepted plea deals and were sentenced to probation.

Dallas Dist. Atty. Craig Watkins, who recently called for a review of capital punishment in Texas after starting a Conviction Integrity Unit to investigate wrongful convictions, recommended exonerating all three men, citing the faulty witness identifications and evidence prosecutors failed to turn over to defense attorneys.

At the courthouse, Watkins -- the first black district attorney elected in Texas -- called for a nationwide discussion about race and justice after seeing too many exonerees who, like Friday's trio, are black.

“Today was a breaking point for me,” Watkins told The Times. “My patience is worn thin. We have a responsibility, and that’s to seek justice.”

After the hearing, the three men spoke with reporters about their mixed emotions.

"I've got butterflies in my stomach. I'm trying to keep everything together," Washington told reporters after the hearing, smiling. "It's been a long time. Justice is finally served."

Washington and Robertson were not released because they are serving time for other crimes.

Smith, 38, an ordained minister, has been free for years, carrying the shame of his conviction, which he told The Times “train-wrecked my life.” In a tough job market, he said the criminal record left him unable to find a job and support his six children.

“To have that stain on you — the whole community knows,” Smith said. “It’s like you’re walking in a shell, and you’ve been labeled. I felt powerless, unable to direct my life.”

Smith and his attorneys credit Watkins and his staff for taking up their cases.

Tracy Cobb was assigned to Washington’s case in 2002 as a law student at the University of Houston volunteering with the Innocence Network. She tracked down two men who had admitted to committing the crime, had them sign affidavits to that effect, and presented them to Watkins’ Conviction Integrity Unit in 2009.

“I really wasn’t sure how it would go,” Cobb, a civil lawyer, told The Times. “I was really grateful that they were receptive, that they saw the value of looking into it.”

Last month, those men and two others confessed to the robbery at a hearing before a Dallas judge. The suspects can't be prosecuted because the statute of limitations has run out, Watkins said.

Still, Gary Udashen, president of the Innocence Project of Texas, who also helped with the case, said Watkins has set an example other prosecutors should follow.

“It’s a credit to the DA’s office in Dallas County that they’re willing to put time and resources into these cases to ensure innocent people are not in prison,” Udashen said.

Watkins said he has become frustrated seeing so many Dallas convicts exonerated -- 30 since he took office five years ago.

He said many of the faulty convictions can be traced not to a lack of DNA or other forensic evidence but to human error: faulty witness identifications, shoddy police work and prosecutorial misconduct.

“There’s something generally wrong with our system and we need to be honest about it,” Watkins said. “I would hope that going forward every DA’s office has a conviction integrity unit or whatever they want to call it, because we have a responsibility to make sure we have the right folks convicted.”

A study by the Veritas Initiative at Santa Clara University School of Law released last month during an Austin forum on prosecutorial misconduct showed that between 2004 and 2008, Texas courts found prosecutors erred in 91 cases. In 72 of those cases, the courts upheld the convictions. In 19 others, the courts reversed the convictions. Yet during the same time period, the Texas Bar Assn. disciplined only one lawyer. 

Smith, still living in the Dallas suburbs, plans to pursue compensation from the state for his wrongful conviction, and hopes to help others in his position. And he’s convinced there will be others, despite what he calls Watkins' efforts to “clean house.”

“Unfortunately, the way the system is set up, there’s destined to be more,” Smith said as he cooked up a celebratory Texas barbecue of chicken and ribs Friday. “There’s too much power in the hands of the people making the mistakes.”

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