NEW VOICES: Former Texas Prosecutor Now Opposes Death Penalty as New Study is Released on Wrongful Convictions

A former Dallas County prosecutor has abandoned his longstanding support of the death penalty and is now opposed to capital punishment based on recent exonerations in Texas and elsewhere. James Fry, who prosecuted Charles Chatman—a man recently exonerated from prison in Dallas County—said he was “shaken to the core” by the high number of exonerations throughout the nation and by evidence of flawed eyewitness testimony. Formerly a staunch supporter of capital punishment, Fry pointed to the risk of mistakes: “I don’t think the system can prove who is guilty and who is innocent,” he said in a recent interview.

More evidence of such mistakes has been revealed in a recent study by the Dallas Morning News. The paper conducted an 8-month investigation into wrongful convictions (primarily non-death penalty cases) in Dallas County, prompted by numerous exonerations, including that of Michael Blair, who was freed from Texas’ death row in 2008 . DNA testing led to capital murder charges against Blair being dismissed in late August, bringing the total number of people exonerated from death row since 1973 to 130.

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins recently announced that he will re-examine nearly 40 death penalty convictions and would halt executions, if necessary, to give the reviews time to proceed. “I don’t want someone to be executed on my watch for something they didn’t do,” he explained. Earlier this year, Mr. Watkins granted a request from the Dallas Morning News to review prosecution files to analyze the root causes of the wrongful convictions. The paper’s reporters also consulted more than 70 current and former prosecutors and police officers, defense lawyers, judges, jurors and exonerees, as well as legal scholars and those who pursue wrongful conviction cases.

The News highlighted the following findings from its 8-month investigation:

•Thirteen of the 19 wrongly convicted men were black. Eight of the 13 were misidentified by victims of another race. Police investigators and prosecutors in the cases were all white, as were many of the juries of the 1980s.

•Police officers used suggestive lineup procedures, sometimes pressured victims to pick their suspect and then cleared the case once an identification was made.

•Prosecutors frequently went to trial with single-witness identifications and flimsy corroboration. Some tried to preserve shaky identifications bywithholding evidence that pointed to other potential suspects.

•Judges, governed by case law that has not kept pace with developments in DNA testing or research on eyewitness testimony, routinely approved even tainted pretrial identifications as long as an eyewitness expressed certainty in court. As a result, victims who sought only justice sent innocent men to prison while the real criminals went free and committed other violent crimes. Taxpayers spent more than $3 million in compensation and incarceration for the Dallas County cases alone. And some of the discredited police practices continue to this day.

The three-part feature, including videos and more, can be viewed here.

(J. Emily, “Prosecutor in one of Dallas County’s DNA exonerations no longer supports death penalty,” Dallas Morning News, October 13, 2008; S. McGonigle, J. Emily, “18 Dallas County Cases overturned by DNA relied on heavily eyewitness testimony,” Dallas Morning News, October 12, 2008). See also Innocence, Studies, and New Voices.