Despite his innocence, Mr. Day pleaded guilty, fearing a 99-year sentence if he went to trial and lost.
05.24.23 By Innocence Staff
(May 24, 2023 – Dallas, TX) Tyrone Day, one of the Innocence Project’s longest-standing clients, was exonerated today after the Dallas County District Attorney dismissed a 1990 sexual assault charge against him, based on new evidence of his innocence.
Mr. Day, who was just 19 years old at the time of his arrest, had accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to 40 years in prison. He was incarcerated for nearly 26 years, before being released on parole and required to register for life as a sex offender. In a reinvestigation by the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU), DNA testing excluded Mr. Day from the scene of the reported assault and confirmed the identity of two alternate suspects. The CIU’s investigation also revealed that the woman who reported the sexual assault hadn’t actually seen Mr. Day’s face when she identified him as one of her attackers. Instead, she had identified him from a far distance based only on a hat, which she said resembled one worn by one of her assailants.
“He pleaded guilty because it appeared to offer the most compelling chance to reunite with his daughters.”
Though he had steadfastly maintained his innocence, Mr. Day pleaded guilty after his attorney told him that he would likely be released on parole after four years in prison if he accepted the plea, and cautioned him that he could face a life sentence if he went to trial and lost. The threat of a longer sentence, if a case is lost at trial, drives too many innocent people to plead guilty. In fact, 26% of known exonerees accepted a guilty plea. At the time, Mr. Day was experiencing significant health issues and had two young daughters to whom he wanted to return home, so he accepted the plea and ended up spending nearly three decades in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
“This exoneration has been a long time coming for Mr. Day, who first wrote to the Innocence Project in 2000 and has relentlessly fought for his innocence over the last 33 years,” said Vanessa Potkin, director of special litigation for the Innocence Project. “Like so many people accused of crimes, Mr. Day had no real choice. If he did not plead guilty to a crime he did not do, he would have faced a trial in a system stacked against him, and risked spending the rest of his life in prison. He pleaded guilty because it appeared to offer the most compelling chance to reunite with his daughters, who were just 2 and 3 years old, sooner. But that was tragically not the case, and he spent 26 years locked away from them. Since his release on parole, Mr. Day has worked to build a beautiful life with his family and given so much to the Dallas community through his work as a food justice advocate and horticulturist at Restorative Farms.”
“Today, I am focused on my family and my passion for sustainable farming.”
“I want to thank the Dallas County Conviction Integrity Unit for bringing this to a conclusion. It has been a long, hard journey for my family and me, but I never lost faith that my innocence would be proven,” said Tyrone Day. “Today, I am focused on my family and my passion for sustainable farming. I was born and raised in South Dallas, and the opportunity to bring fresh produce here, where it’s scarce, and train the next generation of farmers is so meaningful to me.”
“This case is another example of how wrongful convictions can be corrected when a prosecutor’s office works with Innocence Project attorneys to find the truth,” said Gary Udashen of the Innocence Project of Texas, one of Mr. Day’s attorneys. “The work of Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot, as well as Conviction Integrity Unit Chief Cynthia Garza and her staff, was essential to justice being achieved for Tyrone Day.”
“This case has been a humbling experience, and one that stands out in my 29 years of practice,” said Paul R. Genender, a partner in Weil’s complex commercial litigation practice group and leader of the firm’s litigation practice in Texas. “While Mr. Day’s justice was delayed, the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit and everyone involved in this case made sure that it was ultimately not denied.”
On Oct. 25, 1989, the Dallas Police Department responded to calls for assistance from an 18-year-old woman in the Fair Park area who said she was the victim of a sexual assault. According to police reports, the woman, who is white, deaf, and has a speech disability, was walking with her friend when they were approached by a man who offered them drugs. The woman reportedly refused the offer and was subsequently pulled into a nearby vacant apartment where she was sexually assaulted by three unknown males.
While communicating with police via handwritten notes after the attack, the woman saw Mr. Day, who is Black, walking by and identified him as one of her assailants. This identification was apparently based on the fact that Mr. Day was wearing a white hat, which the woman said looked like a hat one of her assailants had worn. A sexual assault kit was collected, but based on the woman’s on-the-street identification, the police arrested Mr. Day the night of the incident. The woman never saw Mr. Day’s face and never gave an official statement to the police; he was identified solely on the basis of his hat. Upon reinvestigation by the Dallas CIU years later, the woman said she had been about 50 feet away from Mr. Day when she identified him as her attacker and that she had never gotten out of the police car to take a closer look.
Eyewitness misidentification has contributed to approximately 63% of the 243 wrongful convictions that the Innocence Project has helped overturn. Factors that contribute to it include challenges associated with cross-racial identification.
The Guilty Plea Problem
When Mr. Day was arrested in 1989, he was held in the Dallas County Jail. He had two young daughters to whom he wanted to return home and a medical condition that was not being treated during his detention. His attorney cautioned him that if he took the case to trial, the State would seek the maximum sentence of 99 years in prison. He incorrectly told him that if he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 40 years, he would likely be released on parole after four years. As a Black man accused of sexually assaulting a white woman in Texas, Mr. Day believed he would never be able to convince a jury that he was innocent. So, he took his lawyers’ advice and accepted a guilty plea with the hopes of being released in four years.
False guilty pleas, in which innocent people plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit, are more commonplace than they may seem. Of the more than 3,000 innocent people who have been exonerated since 1989, 26% pleaded guilty. When the vast majority of cases in a criminal legal system are resolved through plea deals instead of jury trials, pleading guilty, despite being innocent, becomes the only rational choice in an impossible situation all too frequently.
Like many others faced with this choice, Mr. Day pleaded guilty and received a 40-year sentence in state prison. He was released on parole on Jan. 6, 2015, after serving nearly 26 years and was required to register for life as a sex offender. Being a registered sex offender significantly impeded his life and freedom, including preventing him from living in the same house as his wife.
DNA Excludes Tyrone Day
Mr. Day first wrote to the Innocence Project on July 18, 2000, and his case was accepted in 2004. By this point, he had made several requests for DNA testing, which had been denied by the courts.
In 2008, the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office CIU agreed to extensive DNA testing of the evidence — including of the vaginal swabs and cuttings from the women’s clothing. The testing revealed DNA from two unknown male profiles, as well as a third, low-level male contributor. Mr. Day was definitively excluded as a contributor. Further, after a comparison of DNA to the national DNA database maintained by the FBI, Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), two other men were identified as the contributors. Mr. Day was again conclusively excluded as the source of any DNA from semen associated with any of the vaginal specimens collected from the woman.
Hope Grows in the Garden
Since his release from prison, Mr. Day has been system manager and lead horticulturist at Restorative Farms, which he helped found.
Born and raised in South Dallas, Mr. Day worked on his grandmother’s farm as a child. While incarcerated, he revisited his roots and studied horticulture at the Trinity Valley Community College, where he graduated at the top of his class. He also worked in the prison greenhouse for 19 years.
When he was released, Mr. Day went back to South Dallas and saw a food desert — an area with little access to affordable, fresh vegetables and other nutritious food. So, he decided to apply his passion for gardening to help his community and created Restorative Farms with the mission of fostering a vibrant and viable community-based urban farm system. Restorative Farms has a seedling and training farm in South Dallas, which teaches residents how to cultivate their own food and donates fresh produce to communities living in food deserts. It has donated more than 40,000 plants to community gardens and 220 portable gardens to the community, according to news reports.
Mr. Day is represented by Vanessa Potkin at the Innocence Project and Gary Udashen of the Innocence Project of Texas. In addition, Paul Genender and Jenae Ward of Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP represented Mr. Day.
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