April 16, 2008
By Jeff Carlton Associated Press Writer Houston Chronicle
Eyewitness misidentification sent Thomas Clifford McGowan to prison for nearly 23 years. On Wednesday, DNA testing is expected to get him out.
McGowan, 49, will be released from prison Wednesday if, as expected, state District Judge Susan Hawk affirms the conclusions reached by the inmate's attorneys and the Dallas County District Attorney's Office. Both groups say a DNA test conducted April 7 shows McGowan could not have been the man who raped a Dallas-area woman in 1985.
McGowan was convicted in separate trials in 1985 and 1986 for burglary and aggravated sexual assault in connection with the same incident. He received life sentences in both cases.
The Innocence Project, a New York-based legal center that specializes in overturning wrongful convictions, took on McGowan's case last year. He applied for DNA testing, the results of which showed that neither he nor the victim's boyfriend were the source of the male DNA collected as part of the rape kit.
"He has lost nearly his entire adult life to a wrongful conviction that could have — and should have — been prevented," Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck said.
If McGowan's conviction is overturned as expected, he would become the 17th Dallas County man since 2001 to be freed or ordered to receive a new trial because of DNA testing. That's more than any county in the nation.
Overall, 31 people have been formally exonerated through DNA testing in Texas, also a national high.
Unlike many jurisdictions, the crime lab used by police and prosecutors in Dallas retains biological evidence, meaning DNA testing is a viable option for decades-old crimes. District Attorney Craig Watkins has started a program in which law students, supervised by the Innocence Project of Texas, are reviewing hundreds of cases in which convicts have requested DNA testing to prove their innocence.
Watkins' office received an inquiry from the Innocence Project regarding McGowan in August. Watkins agreed to test the DNA sample, which was located at the crime lab, said Jamille Bradfield, a spokeswoman for the DA's office.
McGowan's saga began in May 1985 when a woman identified in court papers as "Ms. C" came home to her Richardson apartment and stumbled upon a burglar. The man bound her hands with his belt, raped her at knifepoint and then loaded his car with several items stolen from her apartment, according to court documents.
Police eventually presented the woman with a live lineup that included three suspects and three fillers. She did not identify any of the men as her attacker.
She was later shown a photo array of seven men. She picked out McGowan's photo, saying she "thought" he was the attacker. But police told her she had to be certain, that she "couldn't just think it was him," she testified in court. It was then that she said McGowan was "definitely" the attacker, according to court documents.
Scheck said decades of studies have that just a few words from a police officer can significantly influence whether a witness identifies the wrong person.
"Just a few words can change everything," Scheck said. "While we sometimes hear of outrageous lineup procedures, improperly pushing a witness into certainty is much more common."