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Dallas County To Exonerate Man Who Didn't Request DNA Testing

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Dallas County is set to exonerate another North Texan.

What makes this case different is that Michael Phillips didn’t request DNA testing or actively proclaim his innocence. That’s a first for Dallas County – or anywhere in the country, according to the Dallas County District Attorney’s office and the National Registry of Exonerations. 

  Phillips, 57, served 12 years in prison after pleading guilty in 1990 for raping a 16-year-old girl at a Dallas motel, the Dallas County DA's office says.  

He’ll be the 34th person who’s exonerated in Dallas County.

The exoneration hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday. The state of Texas awards exonerees $80,000 for each year they were wrongfully convicted.  

What happened in 1990: “Phillips says his defense attorney told him not to risk going to trial – fearing a jury would not side with a black man accused of raping a white girl who picked Mr. Phillips out of a photo line-up,” the DA’s office says.

Reviewing untested rape kits: The office of District Attorney Craig Watkins has been reviewing untested rape kits – and that revealed that Phillips was innocent. The Southwest Institute of Forensic Sciences has been preserving DNA. There was no DNA profile from Phillips to compare to the semen found in the rape kit, because in 1990 DNA samples weren’t routinely collected from sexual assault suspects, the DA’s office says. An FBI system tested the semen in the rape kit and determined Phillips was not the perpetrator.

Released from prison: Phillips was released from prison in 2002, but he didn’t register as a sex offender, so he was back in jail for six months. 

What Phillips says: Phillips, who has sickle cell anemia, is now in a wheel chair and lives in a nursing home. “I never imagined I would live to see my name cleared. Six of my siblings died from the same disease, so I thank God for sustaining me in prison. I always told everyone I was innocent and now people will finally believe me,” Phillips said in a news release. 

Watkins and wrongful convictions: Watkins spoke with NPR earlier this year about his efforts to exonerate those who were wrongfully convicted. Watkins created the country's first Conviction Integrity Unit in Dallas in 2007. He told NPR's Melissa Block about why he did that:

"Well, it all came down to credibility. You know, I grew up in Texas in Dallas. And obviously, as an African-American, I have issues with law enforcement. And in order for law enforcement to work for all the citizens, of individuals I represent, I thought that we needed to take a legitimate look at claims of innocence. And, as a result of that, not only did we free individuals that didn't commit crimes but we also learned a lot about our justice system and how we can make improvements."

Read more on the latest exoneration from USA Today.

Update, Friday: The crowd applauded when Judge Gracie Lewis announced Michael Phillips would be exonerated.  

"Mr. Phillips, I, along with the state of Texas and Mr. Watkins, apologize for the mistakes that our justice system have made," she said.

Phillips, who’s 57 and in a wheelchair because of sickle cell anemia, served 12 years after pleading guilty to raping a 16-year-old girl at a Dallas motel.

The Dallas County District Attorney’s office says in 1990, Phillips was told by his defense attorney not to risk going to trial. Watkins says Friday was a great day for Phillips, but a terrible day for the justice system. 

“This is just another indication of how we need to improve what we do as lawyers, as prosecutors and take it seriously,” Watkins said.

Watkins created the country’s first Conviction Integrity Unit to exonerate people wrongfully convicted. Phillips is the 34th person to be exonerated in Dallas County, and Watkins says, he probably won’t be the last.

Phillips, who lives in a Dallas nursing home, said he never expected his name to be cleared, and said it was the work of God. 

“I give him all the glory, all the glory, everything, ‘cause of him,” Phillips said.

 

Eric Aasen is KERA’s managing editor. He helps lead the station's news department, including radio and digital reporters, producers and newscasters. He also oversees keranews.org, the station’s news website, and manages the station's digital news projects. He reports and writes stories for the website and contributes pieces to KERA radio. He's discussed breaking news live on various public radio programs, including The Takeaway, Here & Now and Texas Standard, as well as radio and TV programs in New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.
Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.