In 1990, Michael Phillips was convicted of raping a 16-year-old at a motel in Dallas, Texas. Phillips pled guilty on the advice of his attorney. His defense attorney informed him that as a black man accused of raping a white teen, he could not get a fair jury and so he should at all costs avoid a jury trial. He spent 12 years in prison and then another 6 months for failing to register as a sex offender. Nearly 25 years after his conviction, Phillips was finally vindicated and no one told him it was happening.
Hundreds of people have been exonerated since 1989, some of them by DNA post-conviction testing. The Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins announced that Phillips, 57, was joining those innocent prisoners. Phillips was never told that DNA testing was going to prove his innocence nor did he seek such tests. He simply accepted what had happened to him, a wrongful conviction, knew he was innocent, and moved on. He did not push for an exoneration. He is the first person in the U.S. to be exonerated by a prosecutor’s office without taking any steps themselves.
“This is different from other exonerations…in a very important way,” said Samuel R. Gross, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations and a law professor at the University of Michigan, “The man who was exonerated, this wasn’t on his mind. He wasn’t thinking about it, he hadn’t thought about it.”
The first he heard about it was when the Conviction Integrity Unit at the prosecutor’s office contacted him. The unit was established by Watkin’s in 2007 to review and investigate “valid” innocence claims and other old cases. As part of Texas’ ongoing effort to test untested, backlogged rape kits (including cases with convicted individuals), evidence from the 1990 case was run through the FBI’s CODIS database. The result was a match to a different man. The teen who was raped had said that she was able to partially pull up the ski mask being worn by her attacker and she recognized it was Phillips. She picked him out of a photo lineup as well. However, the DNA test along with a re-investigation by Watkin’s office shows that her eyewitness testimony was incorrect.
“DNA tells the truth, so this was another case of eyewitness misidentification where one individual’s life was wrongfully snatched and a violent criminal was allowed to go free,” Watkins said in the statement, “We apologize to Michael Phillips for a criminal justice system that failed him.”
Phillips had been released in 2002, but returned to jail in 2004 for failure to register as a sex offender in relation to the same case. At that time, he did mention having DNA tests done, but he was denied.
“I never imagined I would live to see my name cleared,” Phillips, who suffers from sickle cell anemia and is living in a nursing home, said in a statement released by Watkins’s office, “I always told everyone I was innocent and now people will finally believe me.”
Phillips’ exoneration is also remarkable because unlike most exonerees, he did not have to spend a considerable amount of time fighting his case.
“Usually the people who have been exonerated have been working toward this for years,” Samuel R. Gross, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, law professor at the University of Michigan, and former Dallas Co. Conviction Integrity Unit employee said.
About 20 other exonerees attended Phillips’ hearing where a judge announced that Phillips should be exonerated. The issue will go to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which has to approve of the exoneration. If Phillips is exonerated, he will be entitled under Texas law to $80,000 each year for every year he was in prison wrongfully.
In the last two decades, Texas has spent $65 million compensating people it wrongfully convicted.
In 2013, there were 87 exonerations nationwide. Even though DNA exonerations get the most publicity, they only accounted for 20% of all exonerations.