Deaf inmate seeking exoneration in Texas says print matching sex offender proves his innocence

Through a sign-language interpreter at the Dallas County Jail, Stephen Brodie cops to all sorts of crimes save the one that put him behind bars for 10 years: sexual assault of a 5-year-old girl.

He insists he is innocent, and there's support for his claim.

A fingerprint at the crime scene matches another man convicted in the sexual assault of a child. Brodie's confession came during 18 hours of questioning and included admissions to fictitious crimes made up by investigators to test his credibility. Also, Brodie is deaf and doesn't speak clearly, but police didn't use an interpreter for about half of their interviews.

"I want people to know that I'm not a bad person," said Brodie, 38, straining to be understood as he signed and spoke in a recent interview. "I want to be a law-abiding citizen."

He soon may get the chance. The Dallas County District Attorney's office has a unit that focuses on possible exoneration cases, and it is investigating whether Brodie is innocent. His new attorney, Michelle Moore, is a public defender known for helping to free the wrongly convicted. She acknowledged she is close to finishing key documents seeking his release.

These actions could lead to a hearing where a judge would decide whether to set aside Brodie's conviction.

"If they find me not guilty and I'm exonerated," said Brodie, "I'm getting out of Texas."

The injustices in Brodie's life began early. Spinal meningitis when he was 1½ left him permanently deaf, and when he was 5, his mother abandoned him at a bus station.

In 1991, Brodie was a teenager and petty criminal in the Dallas suburb of Richardson when police arrested him for stealing quarters from a soda machine. But during questioning, their focus shifted to a more serious matter: the unsolved sexual assault of a 5-year-old girl.

A man had entered her room through a bedroom window and forced her to leave with her blanket and pillow. He later assaulted her, according to a police report.

The case was one of about a dozen similar sexual assaults terrorizing the Dallas area in the early 1990s. The newspapers labeled the unknown criminal the "North Dallas Rapist."

After nearly 18 hours of questioning over about 14 days, Brodie confessed to assaulting the little girl, court documents show. Brodie told The Associated Press that he felt intimidated. While he finally admitted committing the assault, he also repeatedly denied it.

"It was a lot of stress, because (the detective) was asking me so many questions over and over again," Brodie said. "I got fed up. I gave up. It's easy to give up."

His adoptive father, Steve Brodie, says his son was "being hounded by the Richardson Police Department" and made a scapegoat because of pressure over the unsolved sexual assaults.

"There was such a hue and cry because of these molestations," Steve Brodie said.

Richardson police officials did not respond to several AP interview requests.

Brodie's propensity for admitting to made-up crimes and his lack of knowledge about the actual crimes convinced Dallas Detective Steven Nelson that the teenager was not behind the Dallas sexual assaults. Nelson, in an affidavit, said he informed Richardson police Brodie was not a suspect.

But Richardson police were convinced they had their man. They charged Brodie with sexual assault of a child even though neither a hair found on her blanket nor a fingerprint on the girl's window were a match. There was no physical evidence linking Brodie to the crime.

When a judge ruled the confession was admissible at trial, Brodie and his attorney figured a guilty verdict, punishable by up to 99 years, was all but certain. So they cut a deal — pleading guilty to assaulting the girl in exchange for a five-year prison sentence. After serving that sentence, he served two more totaling an extra five years for twice failing to register as a sex offender.

While Brodie was in prison, Richardson police made a critical discovery. There was a fingerprint on the girl's window, the perpetrator's point of entry, that matched Robert Warterfield, according to court documents and police records.

Warterfield was never charged in the string of sexual assaults on children in the early 90s. But Dallas police said he was the man responsible for six sexual assaults and five attempted assaults in the North Dallas area involving girls ages 7 to 19, according to reports in The Dallas Morning News at the time.

A man would break into homes through windows, force the victims at knifepoint to leave with him and assault them, Dallas police said.

In April 1994, Warterfield pleaded guilty to the sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl and received 10 years probation. He eventually was sentenced to 10 years in prison for violating his probation. He is now free and works for a yard service in Stephenville, according to the Texas sex offender registry.

He did not return a message left by The AP. A man who answered the phone at his home said Warterfield would not speak to the media and declined to identify his attorney.

Richardson police say Warterfield's print is a coincidence, that he "somehow touched the frame when he was wandering around in the neighborhood four days prior to this offense," according to police records.

In a 1994 appeal, Brodie's attorney cited the fingerprint on the window. But a judge denied the appeal, ruling that Brodie's confession outweighed the fingerprint evidence.

If he is freed, Brodie would be the second exoneration case in two years involving Richardson police. The first was Thomas McGowan, who was freed in 2008 after serving 23 years of a life sentence for a rape he did not commit.

"This should never have happened," said Steve Brodie, his voice breaking. "I know he didn't do it. That's not Stephen."