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DNA Testing Fund Evaporating

By Bill Zeeble, KERA News

Dallas, TX – The latest DNA exoneration case in Dallas County - a record-setting 20th - might be among the last if new funding can't be found for future tests. That's because a lot of the state's Innocence Project money was tied to Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff, who's now in jail. Some 15-hundred Texas inmates are waiting for DNA tests. KERA's Bill Zeeble has more.

Shortly after the election of Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, the county created a partnership with the Innocence Project of Texas. Dallas already led the nation in DNA exonerations, and Watkins wanted to look into more cases. The partnership brought in 400 thousand dollars from the non-profit JEHT foundation, managed by Bernie Madoff. The latest beneficiary is Jerry Lee Evans. Twenty-three years behind bars for sexual assault with a deadly weapon, he was freed Wednesday from his life sentence. Recent tests showed no match between his DNA and that from the rape victim.

Evans: I hold no hard feelings. towards nobody, I believe it's God's will for that happen to me maybe it saved me from some traumatic event. I did I don't question what my lord and savior does. It's just good to be free. 23 years it's a long time, but, how to put it, it only seems like yesterday now. But it's good to be free though. That's all I got to say.

The state's Innocence Project Executive Director, Natalie Roetzel, now fears others, who could be jailed unjustly, may never get the chance to prove it. That's because Dallas's grant money evaporates in July.

Natalie Roetzel: The JEHT Foundation was forced to close its doors in January of this year. Which essentially means the 2nd year of the grant has now been eliminated. We're going to end up with less staff and less resources in Dallas County because of the termination of that grant cycle.

Roetzel says that money could've paid for at least half a dozen DNA tests and other research and legal costs. And she adds there's a waiting list of at least 15-hundred Texas inmates seeking her help.

Roetzel: So that's 1500 people in Texas prisons who've managed to find us. And who've written us letters asking for our assistance who may not get their cases evaluated.

No DNA testing money was secured from the Texas legislature, whose session is nearing its end. Governor Perry approved increased compensation for exonerees, from 50 thousand dollars to 80 thousand. But Dallas DA Watkins worries without future DNA funding, he'll lose ground.

Watkins: This is going to a long hot summer and we expect to see several cases come through the system this summer.

In this year's budget-stressed Dallas County, Watkins has been told to slice his budget by 10 percent. Instead, he's demanding an increase. Commissioner John Wiley Price has said the DA's in lala land. So far, that has not slowed Watkins.

Watkins: We have revolutionized how crime and punishment is dispensed in this state. And we would hope our Commissioners would recognize that & reward us by not cutting our budget.

The State Innocence Project's Roetzel says her group's financial loss has forced it to reprioritize cases to see which have the best chance of success. Roetzel says in a recession, donors stop giving, because they're just struggling to make it.

Email Bill Zeeble