Tarrant County Never Convicts Innocents… Except Sometimes

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Posted August 27, 2012 by Andrew McLemore in Blotch
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Fort Worth, as many local columnists love to say, is so much better than Dallas. We’ve got bike lanes, great museums and none of that hip-hop “flavor,” as Mayor Betsy Price said in this week’s cover story.

And as the Star-Telegram‘s Bob Ray Saunders said in a July 21 column, Tarrant County has far fewer DNA exonerations of innocent convicts because “Tarrant County has made fewer mistakes than the larger county to the east,” Saunders wrote, apparently because that’s what an assistant district attorney told him.

When the Dallas Observer‘s Leslie Minora and several other crime reporters made calls to a few places other than the DA’s office, it emerged that Tarrant County may not be saving evidence with nearly the frequency as Dallas County, meaning there’s nothing to test for DNA and therefore nothing to prove that someone convicted of a crime 20 years ago is actually innocent.

Saunders wrote a follow-up column outlining the concerns of a local defense attorney in exactly such a situation with a client who claims innocence, but can’t get the evidence from his case tested because the Tarrant DA’s office likely lost it.

Despite this, Saunders begins that column by repeating his previous statement, but this time with a “seems,” as in: “It seems Tarrant County had fewer exonerations because it made fewer mistakes in convicting innocent people.”

It “seems” like a reasonable assumption based on what “seems” like little reporting on the subject. After all, Dallas County has had 30 exonerations since 2001 compared with just one in Tarrant.

But in only a few weeks since Saunders’ first column, it’s clear smug superiority can easily — and quickly — backfire.

“Texas Man Freed After DNA Clears Him of Rape” read headlines in newspapers around the country over the last week.

The man? David Lee Wiggins, who was wrongfully convicted of rape in Tarrant County in 1988 and spent decades behind bars until he was exonerated by DNA evidence this month and finally freed on Friday, clasping hands with the attorneys who fought for years to test evidence that they believed would prove his innocence.

They were right.

So maybe it’s time for another Star-Telegram column. Tarrant County now has two exonerations compared to Dallas County’s 30. That’s still a wide gap.

But Wiggins, a man who spent 24 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, probably wouldn’t call the incarceration of two innocent men a reason to brag.


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