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Defense Lessons of the Dallas Crime Lab and the Michael Phillips Exoneration

The Dallas Crime Lab has made the national news (along with the history books) by being the first crime lab to have its DNA evidence form the basis of a wrongful conviction exoneration where the defendant didn’t move for the re-testing of the crime lab results.

This is a big national news story.  You can read the details in coverage like the story in the Christian Science Monitor, “Justice delayed: Texas man first to be cleared by DNA review of old rape kits,” and in the Washington Post,Texas man exonerated through DNA testing he didn’t know was going to happen.

Dallas County District Attorney Moves for Exoneration

Dallas D.A. Craig Watkins filed the motion for exoneration of Michael Phillips, which was granted by local District Judge Gracie Lewis last week. Now, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals must approve Judge Lewis’ action and then the exoneration will be finalized.

What happened? Mr. Phillips pled guilty to a rape that he did not commit because he was advised a plea deal would be less punitive for him than facing a full jury trial. As an African American who was accused of raping a sixteen year old teenager who lived in his motel, he had reason to fear what angry jurors might do.

Sadly, not only did Mr. Phillips lose 12 years of his life behind bars, but he also faced life as a registered sex offender after he was released from prison. Michael Phillips did what lots of people do: he dealt with the cards he was given. He stopped fighting to get people to believe his innocence, and moved on with his life as best he could.

A Happy Ending for Michael Phillips

Our district attorney learned that the evidence used to convict by Michael Phillips was fatally flawed and it was his office, not a defense lawyer, that started the ball rolling and has now succeeded in exonerating Michael Phillips.

Michael Phillips can now look forward to being recognized as an innocent man. He is also eligible for compensation for those years he spent behind bars; Mr. Phillips may be able to receive around $1 Million ( 12 years at $80,000 = $ 960,000 ) paid to him by the State of Texas.

Lessons From Michael Phillips’ Wrongful Conviction

1. Eyewitness Testimony Is Notoriously Wrong

The rape victim in this case testified that Michael Phillips was the man who raped her, even though the rapist wore a mask during the assault. We know that this was a false identification now.

Defense lawyers know to fight hard against the prosecution’s use of an “eyewitness” as direct evidence of guilt. Too many studies have been done to prove that people do not remember events, especially sudden criminal events, with sufficient accuracy to serve as evidence in a criminal trial.

Also consider this reality: 29 of the 34 exonerations that have happened here in Dallas in the past 7 years have been shown to have eyewitness testimony identifying the WRONG MAN.


For more on eyewitness testimony, read our post, “Eyewitness Testimony And Prosecutorial Misconduct Spotlighted Again As Texas Executed Another Innocent Man: The Wrongful Prosecution Of Carlos Deluna .

LESSON NUMBER ONE: Defense lawyers still have to educate the jury time after time that eyewitness testimony simply isn’t reliable — the general public still does not understand how having a witness point the finger at a defendant and say “that’s him” is so very untrustworthy.

2. Dallas Crime Lab Test Results Must Be Challenged

The Dallas County Conviction Integrity Unit was formed in an effort to combat wrongful convictions in Dallas courts (other “Conviction Integrity Units” have also been formed in other cities).

Dallas has a national reputation for wrongful convictions, and the State of Texas is first in the country in the number of innocent people being convicted by prosecutors.

As the CIU going through the backlog of untested rape kits from old convictions, justice arose for Michael Phillips. The CIU review found that the DNA collected in the rape investigation (for which Michael Phillips was convicted) matched a man named Lee Marvin Banks.

They discovered this by running the DNA biologicals that had sat there all this time through CODIS (the Combined DNA Index System maintained by the FBI).

Michael Phillips had never had his DNA tested. He took a plea and that was that. (Phillips did push for his DNA to be tested in 2004 when he challenged registration as a sex offender, but his motion for testing was denied.)

Even though Mr. Banks denies the rape, he does admit to living in that same motel at the time of the assault. He will never be prosecuted for the crime, however, because the statute of limitations for bringing the charge against him has passed. (Prosecutors have a time limit set by law within which to charge people with most crimes.)

LESSON NUMBER TWO: What if DNA had been tested before Mr. Phillips had finalized that plea deal? Crime lab evidence is critical in defense cases. Forensic evidence is not the solid truth that television shows make it out to be: crime lab evidence must be challenged because it is often the key that frees the defendant.

Here, the failure to test crime lab evidence proved to be a travesty. In other cases, crime lab evidence has been shown to be unreliable when it does tend to prove the guilt of the accused. Two ready examples:

  • the 1000s of lab test results that have resulted in overturned convictions here in Texas due to the incompetence and bad acts of one single Texas crime lab worker (Jonathan Salvador) and
  • the even higher number of wrongful results deliberately delivered to the court by another crime lab worker in Massachusetts. Annie Dookhan has been shown to have possibly provided flawed and/or faked lab results in over 40,000 drug cases.

LESSON NUMBER THREE: Let’s remember that this exoneration came about because so many wrongful convictions have occurred in Dallas County that we have a national reputation for convicting innocent people here – and as a result, a special Integrity Unit is at work going through old files to try and serve justice.

Due to the testing of biologicals these many years later, Mr. Banks’ connection with this case has been discovered and Mr. Phillips has been cleared of guilt.

Why biological evidence from 1990 is only now being tested in 2011, and resulting in an exoneration in 2014 … that’s another question, isn’t it?

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