DALLAS – A North Dallas prosecutor is set to ask a judge to exonerate a Texas man who said he pleaded guilty to the 1990 rape of a 16-year-old girl because his attorney advised him to avoid trial.
Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins said he will seek exoneration for Michael Phillips at a hearing Friday after DNA testing identified another man as the culprit in the teen's rape at a motel where the two men both lived.
"I never imagined I would live to see my name cleared," Phillips, who suffers from sickle cell anemia and uses a wheelchair, said in a news release from the district attorney's office. "Six of my siblings died from the same disease, so I thank God for sustaining me in prison. I always told everyone I was innocent and now people will finally believe me."
Phillips, 57, served 12 years in prison after entering a plea deal. He was released in 2002 but his failure to register as a sex offender later landed him back in jail for six months. He now lives in a nursing home.
Watkins has an ongoing project of reviewing untested rape kits, even without defendants initiating the request. Through his Conviction Integrity Unit, DNA preserved by the Southwest Institute of Forensic Sciences in sexual assault kits is tested.
Watkins said in the news release that there was no DNA from Phillips to compare to the profile from the semen in the rape kit. But when the semen was put into the FBI's Combined DNA Index System, another person was identified as the perpetrator. A district attorney's office spokeswoman said the statute of limitations has expired on the crime and that the perpetrator who was identified remains free.
Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan who is editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, assists Watkins' Conviction Integrity Unit in the testing of the cases. He said Watkins' program demonstrates not only that such a program can be done, but also on a "relatively modest scale."
Phillips said his attorney warned him to not risk a jury trial, fearing a jury would not side with a black man accused in the rape of a white girl who picked him out of a photo line-up.
The district attorney's office said his attorney at the time was Mike Morrow. When reached by The Associated Press on Thursday night, Morrow said he could not immediately recall the case from 24 years ago and had no immediate comment.
Watkins told The Associated Press that he was impressed with Philips' attitude. "He was very positive. He was not angry," Watkins said.
"He talked about his faith and his religion and the fact that he had prayed through this whole ordeal," Watkins said.
Phillips' case would be the 34th exoneration by the Watkins' Conviction Integrity Unit.