Thanks to the Dallas County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit, a Dallas man is poised to become exonerated by DNA evidence without having ever asked for post-conviction testing. The unit, which is spearheaded by District Attorney Craig Watkins, tests DNA evidence from past cases even in cases where convicted defendants haven’t proclaimed their innocence.
USA Today reported that Michael Philips heard the life changing news in May when two police officers visited him at the nursing home where he resides to say prosecutors now knew he spent 12 years in prison for a rape he didn’t committed. Philips, 57 and wheelchair-bound from severe sickle cell anemia, is a registered sex offender but that is about to change come Friday when he is exonerated.
Watkins created the nation’s first conviction integrity unit to investigate claims of wrongful conviction in 2007 and in the seven years following, it has exonerated 33 people. Watkins work with the unit caught the attention of Samuel Gross, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, who urged the unit to look at rape cases even if there wasn’t an innocence claim. That worked commenced in 2009, and Philips is the first case out of seven that have been tested from 1990 where innocence was proven.
“This case means not just Dallas County but other DAs (need) to proactively look at issues that they may have in their files,” Watkins says, according to USA today. “There may be an innocent person that is languishing in prison for something they didn’t do. Don’t wait for somebody to knock on your door to tell you. . . ‘I didn’t do the crime.’ ”
Phillips was the only suspect in the rape of a 16-year-old white girl that occurred at the motel where he worked and lived. Philips, who is black, and was misidentified by the victim in a photo lineup, feared a jury would take her word over his and agreed to a plea bargain to avoid a lengthy prison sentence. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Although his lawyer said he’d be out in after four years, he was denied parole and served the full term.
When Watkins’ Conviction Integrity Unit put the semen from the rape kit through the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, the profile identified another man that also lived at the hotel. Because the statute of limitations has run out, that man cannot be prosecuted but Watkins said his criminal record will note that he was a match in the rape.
During the 12 years Philips was behind bars, his father died, he served a month in solitary confinement and was hospitalized nine times because of sickle cell anemia. Shortly after his release in 2002 he was arrested for failing to register as a sex offender and served another six months. When a court challenge to his conviction failed, he gave up trying to prove his innocence.