DALLAS - When a iudge told Patrick Waller he was a free man after being wrongly convictedand imprisoned for more than 15 years, the former inmate raised both arms skyward and then collapsed into his mother's embrace.
His sobs were the only sound in an otherwise silent court room Thursday.
"lt's all right, honey," Patricia cunningham told her son. "lt's over. You're out of here. You're going home."
Waller, behind bars since late 1992 for aggravated robbery and aggravated kidnapping stemming from the abduction of a Dallas couple, was proven innocent by DNA testing late last year and released Thursday. The court hearing that freed him lasted less than five minutes.
"I feel vindicated,"s aid Waller, 38. "1 feel thankful. Most of all, I feel blessed."
His release had been all but certain since last week, when the Dallas County District Attorney's office announced that DNA evidence had cleared Waller and matched the profile of another man. That suspect identified his accomplice, and both men subsequently confessed in front of a grand jury, prosecutors said. Neither man is in prison, and they won't face criminal charges because the statute of limitations has expired.
The first suspect, tied to the crime by DNA evidence, remains on parole for another 29 years, assistant district attorney Mike Ware said Warie hasi notif ied the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which he said will consider the case should they ever have reason to revoke the man's parole.
Waller becomes the 19th man ~n Dallas County since 2001 shown by DNA evidence to be innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. That's more than any county in the nation, according to The lnnocence Project in New York, a legal center specializing in wrongful conviction cases.
Lining the back wall of the crowded courtroom were four fellow exonorees who collectively served nearly 100 years of hard time. The men freed by DNA testing in Dallas County have made a habit of showing up in court for exoneration hearings, and on Thursday they presented Waller with a prepaid cell phone as a gift.
Their exoneration stories helped Waller during his incarceration.
"All these guys I just met, I have all their clippings," Waller said. "It always gave me hope that one day it would be my turn."
Waller said he plans to ask the other exonorees about the challenges of rejoining society. He is also about 20 credit hours short of a degree. John Stickels, an lnnocence Project of Texas board member and a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, said he wants to help Waller enroll at the suburban Dallas school.
Wallets ordeal began in 1992, when two men abducted a couple at gunpoint and made them drive to an ATM, where they stole several hundred dollars. The men then made the couple drive to an abandoned house, where the woman was sexually assaulted, prosecutors said.
Another couple drove up to the scene and were also held up at gunpoint. Before they could be harmed, a security guard arrived and scared off the men, who fled in separate cars.
Three of the four people abducted identified Waller in a photo array shown to them by police. The fourth did not identify Waller in a photo but later picked him out of a live lineup, said Ware, who heads the Conviction Integrity Unit that examines old cases.
Waller maintained his innocence and presented an alibi at trial, but was convicted of aggravated robbery and sentenced to life in prison. He also pleaded guilty to h o charges of aggravated kidnapping, fearing more life sentences if he were convicted, said his lawyer, Gary Udashen.
In 2001, Waller requested post-conviction DNA testing under a new state law. The DA's office, then under different leadership , opposed the request and it was denied by a judge. A second attempt in 2005 was also unsuccessful.
"Frankly it didn't make any sense to me," Udashen said. "There was never any legitimate reason not to give him a DNA test."
Bill Hill, who was the DA when Waller requested his DNA tests, did not return a message from The Associated
Waller's 2007 request, which came after new DA Craig Watkins had taken office, was granted. Watkins has started
a program in which law students, supervised by the Innocence Project of Texas, review old cases in which inmates
have requested DNA testing.
In Waller's case, DNA testing was paid for by the Innocence Project of Texas.
Waller said he regained his faith in the justice system when Watkins reopened the case.
"If it wasn't for Craig Watkins ... he probably would have spent the rest of his life in prison," Udashen said.