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DNA tests cast doubt on Texas justice

State has high rate of exonerations

James Waller was cleared of rape after DNA testing. James Waller was cleared of rape after DNA testing.

DALLAS -- In a case that has renewed questions about the quality of Texas justice, a man who spent 10 years behind bars for the rape of a boy has become the 12th person in Dallas County to be cleared by DNA evidence.

That is more DNA exonerations than in all of California, and more than in Florida, too.

In fact, Dallas County has more such cases than all but three states -- a situation one Texas lawmaker calls an "international embarrassment."

James Waller, 50, was exonerated by a judge earlier this week and received an apology from the district attorney's office after a new type of DNA testing on hair and semen showed he was not the rapist who attacked a 12-year-old boy living in Waller's apartment building in 1983.

The boy had been the chief witness against him. "It's been a long, horrible road," said Waller, who has been out on parole since 1993.

Only New York, Illinois, and Texas have had more DNA exonerations than Dallas County, which has a population of 2.3 million, according to the Innocence Project, a New York-based legal center that specializes in overturning wrongful convictions.

"These are appalling mistakes, and in the case of Dallas County, there have been so many," said state Senator Rodney Ellis of Houston, a Democrat who is sponsoring a bill to create the Texas Innocence Commission, a panel that would scrutinize the state's criminal justice system. Ellis serves as chairman of the board of directors for the Innocence Project.

A similar bill failed to reach the floor in the past two legislative sessions. But "my colleagues in the Senate, in particular, are beginning to see that these are human lives we are talking about," Ellis said. "There are times when we make mistakes, and when we do, we ought to be big enough to admit it."

Since the nation's first DNA exoneration in 1989, 26 defendants have been cleared in Illinois, including 11 in Chicago's Cook County, according to the Innocence Project.

There have been 21 exonerations each in Texas and New York, nine in California, and six in Florida, the group said.

In Dallas County, about 400 prisoners who filed wrongful-conviction claims have received DNA testing, leading to the 12 exonerations, said Trista Allen, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office.

District Attorney Craig Watkins, who took office two weeks ago, is determined to look into the underlying causes, she said. "If you are not guilty, we want to get you out of jail," Allen said. "We're not going to be the DA that stands in the way."

Barry Scheck, codirector of the Innocence Project, said the number of exonerations in Dallas County "demands a closer look and statewide action."