Posted: January 4, 2012 12:00 AM
Prosecutors Withheld Critical Evidence Pointing to Misidentification
Contact: Paul Cates, 212-364-5346, cell 917-566-1294, firstname.lastname@example.org
(Dallas, TX – January 4, 2012) -- With the consent of the District Attorney’s Office, a Dallas County judge today released Rickey Dale Wyatt and recommended that his rape conviction be vacated after he served nearly 31 years. Working closely with the Dallas District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit, the Innocence Project secured Wyatt’s release through DNA and other evidence, including evidence pointing to his misidentification that prosecutors failed to turn over to the defendant. If Wyatt is cleared by the Court of Appeals as expected, he would have served more time than any other person in Texas who has been exonerated in the modern era.
“Tragically Mr. Wyatt was the victim of overzealous prosecutors that cost him nearly 31 years of his life, but Craig Watkins and Russell Wilson, the new head of Dallas’ Conviction Integrity Unit, must be commended for their cooperation and willingness to acknowledge the prosecutorial misconduct in Mr. Wyatt’s case,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “But as this case and the recent case of Michael Morton have so clearly illustrated, we need the Legislature to pass reforms to prevent this kind of misconduct from happening in the first place.”
Police suspected one person was responsible for three sexual assaults that occurred in the South Dallas neighborhood on November 1, 1980, December 19, 1980 and January 6, 1981 because the crimes were committed with the same modus operandi. Although there are many unanswered questions about the reliability of the identification procedures used, eventually all three victims identified Wyatt as their attacker through a photo array.
Wyatt maintained his innocence from the beginning and turned down a plea bargain of a recommended five year sentence. He was tried for the November 1, 1980 attack first. The victim, who was grabbed from behind at night and dragged by knifepoint to a poorly lit area between two houses, originally described her attacker as being approximately 30 years old, weighing 170 to 180 pounds, being between 5’9” and 6’ tall and having a short afro, no facial hair and possibly a gold tooth. Wyatt was 5’6”, weighed approximately 140 pounds and had a mustache and other facial hair and no gold tooth. At trial, Wyatt insisted that he was misidentified and called his nephew, Robert Smith, to testify that Wyatt’s weight and facial hair had remained the same since the time of the crimes. Despite the large inconsistencies between Wyatt and the victim’s original description, Wyatt was convicted at least in part due to the testimony of a police officer who discredited Smith’s testimony by claiming that Wyatt told him when he was arrested that he recently lost 30 pounds. Wyatt was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He was never tried for the other two crimes.
Working with the Dallas Conviction Integrity Unit, the Innocence Project conducted DNA testing. While much of the evidence was degraded, testing revealed a partial male DNA profile that excludes Wyatt. The joint investigation also uncovered additional evidence supporting Wyatt’s innocence. This evidence was known to the prosecution at the time Wyatt was tried but was never turned over to the defense as required:
• Evidence that the victim of the January 6, 1981 attack, who was allowed to testify in the sentencing phase of Wyatt’s trial, viewed a live line up that included Wyatt but did not identify him as her assailant.
• Evidence documenting that Wyatt never weighed anything near the weight of the actual perpetrator of the crime spree, including a document in the State’s trial file indicating that Wyatt weighed 135 pounds on May 21, 1980, newly discovered medical records indicating that he weighed 144 pounds on January 13, 1981, an arrest report from January 24, 1981 indicating that he weighed 130 pounds on January 24, 1981 and evidence that he weighed approximately 140 pounds at the time of his trial on July 30, 1981. This evidence also contradicted the testimony of the officer who testified that Wyatt had recently lost 30 pounds.
• A photograph of Wyatt showing that he had a mustache and other facial hair. This could have been used by Wyatt in lieu of or in addition to his family member’s testimony that was solicited to show that Wyatt didn’t match the victim’s description of her attacker.
• Evidence that one of the three victims believed that the perpetrator might have had gold teeth, which would have excluded Wyatt since he didn’t have gold teeth.
“Mr. Wyatt has seen both the best and the worst of how district attorney’s offices operate,” said Jason Kreag, a Staff Attorney with the Innocence Project. “There’s no question that prosecutorial misconduct led to his 31 year wrongful imprisonment. But the Dallas Conviction Integrity Unit couldn’t have handled this case better by not only helping to free Mr. Wyatt but also making it clear that this kind of abuse of power won’t be tolerated anymore.”
Gary Udashen, of Sorrels, Udashen & Anton and the Innocence Project of Texas, added, “By enacting an open file discovery policy that includes pretrial and post conviction cases, Craig Watkins has demonstrated that it’s possible to make our communities safer and more just.”
Statewide reforms recommended by the Innocence Project to prevent prosecutorial misconduct include:
• Amending the criminal procedure law to include guidelines to prosecutors for disclosing information that points to a defendant’s innocence. The National District Attorneys’ Association, the American Bar Association, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the Federal Judicial Center have all issued recommendations along these lines.
• Enacting “open file” discovery which would simplify disclosure procedures, helping to ensure that defense attorneys have access to all exculpatory material.
• Enacting American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Responsibility 3.8(g) and (h) that would require a prosecutor to turn over any evidence pointing to innocence he or she become aware of post-conviction and to take action to clear the defendant if there is clear evidence of the defendant’s innocence.
Misidentification was also a factor in Wyatt’s wrongful conviction. In 2011, the Texas Legislature passed a law that requires police departments across the state to adopt written policies for identification procedures that are based on a model policy created by the Bill Blackwood Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas (LEMIT) or at a minimum conform to current best practices. LEMIT recently released its policy, which endorses each of the recommended best practices, including: blind-sequential presentation, proper filler selection, and recording of confidence statements. The model policy will be presented to law enforcement agencies in Texas for their consideration. Training for police officers on the policy is expected to be held in the spring and early summer of 2012. Law enforcement agencies are required to adopt written policies by Sept. 1, 2012.
Wyatt’s daughter, who now lives in Louisiana, was in court for her father’s release as well as 10 Dallas exonerees. Wyatt plans to live with his nephew Robert Smith, who testified at his trial and who now ministers to people returning from prison.
A copy of the application for writ of habeas corpus memorandum in support of the writ is available here, and a copy of the agreed findings of facts is available here.
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