DALLAS (AP) — A Dallas man who prosecutors say did not commit a 1990 rape for which he served 12 years in prison should be exonerated based on recent DNA testing he did not request, a judge recommended Friday.
Dallas County Criminal District Court Judge Gracie Lewis found 57-year-old Michael Phillips to be innocent, saying his conviction should be vacated. The matter now goes to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals; it was not immediately clear when the court would rule.
The National Registry of Exonerations said it's the first U.S. case it knows of in which an innocent defendant was identified as a result of a systematic screening and DNA testing of past convictions by a prosecutor's office, rather than being initiated by a defendant or the defendant's representatives.
Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins sought the exoneration after DNA testing identified another man as the culprit in the rape of a 16-year-old girl at a motel where both men lived.
Watkins has an ongoing project of reviewing untested rape kits, even without defendants initiating the request. Should the appeals court decide in Phillips' favor, it would be the 34th exoneration by Watkins' Conviction Integrity Unit. On Friday, almost a dozen other men who had been exonerated were in the audience to greet him.
"This is a great day for Mr. Phillips but a terrible day for our justice system," Watkins said during the hearing.
Phillips served 12 years in prison after entering a plea deal that he said his attorney advised him to take, fearing a jury would not side with a black man accused of raping a white girl who picked him out of a photo line-up. He was released in 2002, but his failure to register as a sex offender later landed him back in jail for six months. He now lives in a nursing home.
Phillips, who suffers from sickle cell anemia and uses a wheelchair, spoke only briefly during the hearing, saying that he was appreciative.
"I never imagined I would live to see my name cleared," he said in a news release Thursday. "I always told everyone I was innocent and now people will finally believe me."
After the hearing, Watkins said: "Twelve years of his life are gone. His father died not knowing that his son didn't commit this crime. His mother died, not knowing that he didn't commit this crime. So there's a lot. He's got brothers and sisters that are no longer living that had endured the 12 years that he spent in prison not knowing if he committed this crime."
Police and prosecutors have long aided some exonerations without having special conviction-review units, and many still do. But since Watkins started his Conviction Integrity Unit in 2007, several more prosecutors' offices across the country have created such staff teams or expert panels to review wrongful-conviction claims.
In the Dallas County unit, DNA preserved by the Southwest Institute of Forensic Sciences in sexual assault kits is tested. Because DNA samples weren't routinely collected from sexual assault suspects in 1990, there was none from Phillips to compare to the profile from the semen in the rape kit, Watkins said in a news release. But when the semen was put into the FBI's Combined DNA Index System, another person was identified as the perpetrator.
That man's DNA profile was added to the database this year after he was sentenced to six months in jail for burglary. The man has denied committing the rape, and the district attorney's office says the statute of limitations has expired.