Thursday, November 29, 2007

Innocence group trying to build support network for DNA exonerees

November 22, 2007

By Jeff Carlton, Associated Press

Anthony Hicks has been in the free world for "11 years and four months come Friday," he said, but the wail of a siren still stops him cold.

"I still have one fear when I am driving and hear an ambulance or a police car behind me," said Hicks, freed by DNA evidence after five years in prison for a rape and robbery he did not commit. "It's a spooky feeling."

Hicks, whose wife stood by him and whose father financed his appeals, considers himself lucky. He had a home to move back into immediately and landed a job within four months.

But few exonerated inmates have such a support system, which is why the Innocence Project of Texas has scheduled its first major fundraiser Saturday. The DNA Blues Ball, featuring blues musicians playing in an East Dallas concert hall, will bring together about a dozen exonerees and the people who secured their freedom.

The money raised will help pay for more DNA tests and "to build an exoneration support network," said Natalie Roetzel, the executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas.

Among exonerees, there are success stories such as Hicks or Anthony Robinson, who became a lawyer after serving 10 years in prison for a sexual assault conviction later proved false by a DNA test.

But there are also tales of twice-ruined lives, of wrongly convicted men ill-equipped to handle regained freedom. Eugene Henton, exonerated by DNA evidence after serving time for a sexual assault conviction, went back to prison after getting convicted on assault and drug charges. He was released last month.

Another exoneree, Donald Good, received a life sentence for sexual assault. Paroled after 10 years, Good went back to prison on a five-year sentence for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. He was released in April.

"I know a few who have done very well for themselves," Roetzel said. "And then there are others, it's all they can do to not end up back in jail."

Day-to-day challenges such as finding a home or getting a job often prove overwhelming, Roetzel said. Some landlords won't rent to registered sex offenders, even ones with letters from judges and attorneys explaining their innocence. And employers can be reluctant to hire convicted felons, not bothering to understand the exoneration process.

"Yeah, you're free," Hicks said. "Where do we go to start anew? How do we start anew? What do you do when your life is snatched from you?"

Since 2001, DNA tests have exonerated 29 wrongfully convicted inmates in Texas, the most of any state, according to the Innocence Project. Thirteen of those inmates were convicted in Dallas County, the most from any one county in the country.

Those who specialize in overturning wrongful convictions expect more exonerations to come out of Dallas. District Attorney Craig Watkins has started a program in which law students, supervised by the Innocence Project of Texas, are reviewing about 450 cases in which convicts have requested DNA testing to prove their innocence.

Six of the approximately 65 cases reviewed to date will result in DNA tests. Another seven defendants "are not appropriate for testing but we'll be looking into their cases because they do have some interesting claims of actual innocence," said Mike Ware, an assistant district attorney who heads Watkins' Conviction Integrity Unit.

The level of cooperation in Dallas County is so unique, said Innocence Project of Texas chief counsel Jeff Blackburn, that "it's like life in a parallel universe. I am living in bizarro-world now."

Watkins said he plans to attend the ball.

"I think it's a great cause," said Watkins, who took office in January. "I would implore more district attorneys to get on board with it. When you make a mistake, you should be the first one to say it. What that does is restore credibility to the system."

Blackburn said he hopes the DNA Blues Ball will boost the fortunes of the cash-strapped organization. The Innocence Project of Texas runs mostly on a $100,000 annual grant from the Texas Legislature to one of its member groups: the Texas Tech Innocence Project Clinic. It also recently received a $25,000 grant from the Texas Bar Foundation. Roetzel and a part-time administrative assistant are the organization's only paid employees, and they work out of donated office space in Lubbock.

The DNA Blues Ball has already raised about $10,000 and organizers are hoping to raise $50,000, Roetzel said. The money will go toward investigations of other cases and to pay DNA tests. Each test costs about $1,500, with several specimens typically tested for each case.

Though money is helpful, Hicks said the most beneficial aspect of the Blues Ball will be the interaction among "my brother and sister exonerees."

Hicks said only another exoneree could understand why, upon his release, he began keeping a journal of his whereabouts, writing down eyewitnesses who could vouch for his alibi if he needed one. Or why, in public places, he became paranoid about being within arm's length of women.

The Blues Ball will allow Hicks to reach out to other inmates and tell them, "You can let your load off on me," he said.

"This is not about one individual; it's about all of us," Hicks said. "And others will come free in the near future. It's going to happen. That is something you can bank on."

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