Michael Phillips, an African American man falsely convicted of sexual assault, told everyone he was innocent, but after his attorney advised that he would be better off pleading guilty than risking conviction at trial, and after he then served out his 12-year prison term, he never thought his name would be cleared. However, on July 25, 2014, at 9 a.m. Mr. Phillips, 57, in a wheel chair due to sickle cell anemia, is expected to be exonerated in Criminal District Court 3 at the Frank Crowley Courts Building in Dallas, Texas.
Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins’ ongoing initiative to review untested rape kits revealed that Michael Phillips was innocent. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, this is the first time in the United States an exoneration of this nature has occurred…as a result of a district attorney’s systematic testing without active request by a defendant.
Mr. Phillips pled guilty to the 1990 rape of a 16-year-old Caucasian girl at a Dallas motel where they both lived. The victim identified him from a photo lineup. He knew that the odds were not good for an African American in this situation, and he took the advice of his attorney to plead guilty.
After Phillips served his sentence and was released from prison in 2002, he was returned to jail for six months when he failed to register as a sex offender. He has had difficulty finding a place to live and getting a job. Currently, he is living in a nursing home.
In spite of the incredible hardship suffered by Mr. Phillips, he thanks God for sustaining him in prison to see this day. Oddly enough, in some ways he is a lucky man.
“Mr. Phillips is very lucky that we tested rape kits from the year in which the heinous crime took place,” said District Attorney Watkins.
DNA analysis of the semen from the rape kit was put into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, which identified Lee Marvin Banks as the perpetrator. Banks lived at the same motel at the time of the rape.
According to an article in USA Today here, Mr. Banks will not be prosecuted because the statute of limitations has run out. Watkins indicated that his criminal record will include a notation that his DNA matched the crime evidence in this case.
Mr. Phillips is also fortunate that Southwest Institute of Forensic Sciences preserved the biological evidence from his case.
And he was lucky to have the assistance of Samuel Gross, Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School and Editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, and Professor Colin Starger of the University of Baltimore School of Law. Both worked pro bono under the supervision of the Dallas County Conviction Integrity Unit to test the untested sexual assault evidence.
District Attorney Craig Watkins’ initiative to systematically test rape kits from a period in which neither crime scene evidence nor a defendant’s DNA were automatically tested has prompted what will be the 34th exoneration that has resulted from the work of his Conviction Integrity Unit.
As Mr. Watkins noted, “…this was a methodical approach that can be replicated nationwide. Untested rape kits should not just sit on a shelf and collect dust.”
Mr. Watkins’s suggestion is clear. District attorneys throughout the nation are best positioned to lead the charge in correcting and preventing miscarriages of justice.
On July 25, 2014, Mr. Phillips will finally experience a long-awaited day in court. Our nation should be grateful for those who contributed to this important correction, and especially for the leadership of Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins.
Read the complete report which details this case and the Dallas County District Attorney’s project here.