Dallas Morning News, The (TX)
July 4, 2008
'I believe again'
Wrongly convicted man walks out of prison after 16 years
Author: JENNIFER EMILY; Staff Writer firstname.lastname@example.org
On Thursday, Patrick Waller said he regained his faith in the criminal justice system. He lost it 16 years ago when a jury wrongly convicted him in a case that included kidnapping, robbery and rape.
"Right now, I believe again," he said just after a judge released him and he became the 18th inmate from Dallas County cleared by DNA testing. "I feel vindicated."
When Judge Don Adams announced Mr. Waller was "free to go," Mr. Waller jumped from his chair and raised both fists in the air in victory.
Mr. Waller, now 38, then turned and held his mother in a bear hug. They had embraced many times during her visits to prison. But this was the first time since 1992 that he hugged her as a free man. He wept, and his mother clung to him.
"Honey, it's all right. It's over," his mother, Patricia Cunningham told him. "It's going to be all right now." She wiped away his tears with a crumpled tissue.
"We're going home," she said. "It's OK, baby."
Before leaving the courtroom, he used a cellphone for the first time to call his aunt and niece in North Carolina to share the news.
"I'm free," he told them.
Mr. Waller was cleared of crimes in which two men in March 1992 abducted a couple at gunpoint in the West End, forced them to withdraw money from an ATM and took them to an abandoned house in Oak Cliff. The woman was raped.
Another couple who pulled up in front of the house was also abducted. The men attempted to rape a second woman but were scared off by a Dallas schools security guard who drove by.
Mr. Waller was later incorrectly identified in police lineups as one of the attackers. A jury convicted Mr. Waller of aggravated robbery in December 1992 and sentenced him to life in prison. Mr. Waller then pleaded guilty to two aggravated kidnapping charges in exchange for dual, 30-year prison terms. He thought jury trials would lead to even longer sentences.
Mr. Waller is free on a personal recognizance bond. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals must still approve his release.
Dallas County has more inmates cleared by DNA than any other county in the nation since 2001 when the state Legislature approved post-conviction DNA testing. Unlike other jurisdictions, Dallas County has preserved most of its evidence.
In April 2001, Mr. Waller was one of the first inmates from the county to request testing. But he was twice denied post-conviction DNA tests - in 2001 and 2005 - under previous District Attorney Bill Hill.
Only after Craig Watkins succeeded Mr. Hill and began the conviction integrity unit did Mr. Waller get his test.
The test showed that the DNA did not match Mr. Waller but because there were two men tied to the crimes, he was not automatically cleared. Then, the DNA matched a convicted criminal in a state database.
That man confessed to the crime and pointed out his accomplice, who also confessed. Both men told a grand jury - under penalty of perjury - that they and not Mr. Waller were responsible.
The statute of limitations has expired, so neither man can be prosecuted. Had the DNA test been granted under Mr. Hill, who has not returned calls seeking comment, the DNA test may have been used to keep one of the true perpetrators from gaining parole on a home invasion case. He served only 15 of 45 years.
Dallas County prosecutor Mike Ware, who oversees the conviction integrity unit and approved the DNA test, said agreeing to the test was an easy decision.
"Why wouldn't I?" said Mr. Ware. "I believed that we can learn important facts about what happened with this case with a DNA test. I had no idea how it would turn out."
If not for the DNA test, said Mr. Waller's attorney, Gary Udashen, "he probably would have spent the rest of his life in prison."
* SEE PATRICK WALLER shout in joy at his newfound freedom.
PHOTO(S): (1-2. JIM MAHONEY/Staff Photographer)
1. Patrick Waller, wrongly convicted in a 1992 kidnapping, robbery and rape, reveled Thursday in the judge's announcement that he was "free to go." He was joined by attorney Gary Udashen (left) and John Stickels of the Innocence Project of Texas.
2. "We're going home," Patricia Cunningham told son Patrick Waller in the courtroom on Thursday after he was released. His mother wiped his tears as he wept. CHART(S): DigitalEXTRA
Copyright 2008 The Dallas Morning News
Record Number: 1181065778