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Tarrant County DA drops capital murder charges against man cleared by DNA analysis

A photo of Willie Thomas, a Black man with short black hair wearing a Dallas Mavericks t-shirt, poses with his arms around Caitlin Gilbert, a white woman with short blonde hair and a checkered blazer, and his mother Barbara, a Black woman with short salt-and-pepper hair and a white cardigan. They all smile for the camera.
Courtesy
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Innocence Project of Texas
Willie Thomas, center, poses with Innocence Project of Texas Staff Attorney Caitlin Gilbert, left, and his mother Barbara, right.

The Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office has officially dropped charges against a Dallas man after new DNA testing of evidence led to his conviction being vacated.

Willie Thomas, 41, was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 2011 after being accused of robbing a club in Fort Worth and shooting and killing manager Willie Walker two years prior.

A forensic DNA analyst testified there was a mixture of DNA on the gun found at the crime scene, and Thomas’ DNA was included in that mixture, said Mike Ware, lead counsel on Thomas’ case and executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas.

Texas law allows a convicted person to request new DNA testing of evidence if testing technology has improved since their conviction, which Thomas did in 2015. He was released on bond after a new analysis in 2021 disproved the previous testimony, according to court documents.

"So much of DNA analysis now is interpreting mixtures," Ware said. "There's just a whole lot of room for error there, and the scientific advances in that interpretation of mixture process has made all the difference in the world over the last couple of years. And it did in Willie's case."

The Innocence Project of Texas then filed a writ in district court to vacate the conviction. A district judge recommended to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that Thomas receive a new trial, but the state’s highest criminal court vacated his conviction altogether in November.

Thomas still faced a capital murder charge, and the case returned to the trial court for potential prosecution. The Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office reached a plea deal with Thomas’ court-appointed attorney in May, according to court documents.

The deal charged Thomas with robbery and gave him credit for the time he already served in prison for the murder conviction, the DA's office confirmed, officially freeing him and no longer subjecting him to the terms of his bond.

Thomas was not immediately available for comment.

Caitlin Gilbert, another attorney with Innocence Project of Texas working on the case, said Thomas’ case shines a light on others that might involve faulty DNA testing in Texas.

Right now, Gilbert said Thomas is just excited to live life with his partner, child and career.

“He's a very forward-looking person,” she said. “I think he's overall pretty optimistic and just glad not to be under the conditions of bond any longer.“

Got a tip? Email Toluwani Osibamowo at tosibamowo@kera.org. You can follow Toluwani on X @tosibamowo.

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Toluwani Osibamowo is a general assignments reporter for KERA. She previously worked as a news intern for Texas Tech Public Media and copy editor for Texas Tech University’s student newspaper, The Daily Toreador, before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She is originally from Plano.