By Mike Ware, executive director, IPTX
On March 25, 2017, Billy Smith passed away in Dallas, Texas. Billy was one of the Dallas DNA exonorees who spent 20 years in prison for a crime for which he was proven innocent by DNA. Billy spent the ten years after his release from prison working tirelessly to improve the Texas criminal justice system and to obtain the release of other wrongfully imprisoned persons.
The tragedy of Billy’s wrongful imprisonment was compounded by the way he was treated by the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office. In 2001 Billy filed a request for a DNA test to prove his innocence. For the next five years the District Attorney’s Office fought against Billy receiving this test. In 2005 a unanimous opinion from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ordered the DNA test to proceed in Billy’s case. The court’s opinion, in strong and clear language, recognized that the District Attorney’s Office never had a legitimate basis to oppose Billy receiving the DNA test. The DNA test was then performed, proving Billy’s innocence and in 2006 he was finally released from prison.
The resistance to Billy receiving a DNA test was by the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office prior to Craig Watkins taking office as District Attorney in 2007 and establishing the nations first District Attorney’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit. Since it’s inception the Dallas County Conviction Integrity Unit has identified other wrongfully imprisoned persons who were also denied DNA testing under the previous District Attorney’s administration and worked to ensure that innocent persons are not in prison.
Nevertheless it is important that we not forget what the “old days” were like. Under the attitude and approach taken by the Dallas District Attorney’s Office when Billy was fighting to prove his innocence, justice took a back seat to protecting and upholding convictions. And that attitude and approach is still prevalent in prosecutor’s offices throughout Texas and the entire country. Even some Dallas County prosecutors believe the District Attorney’s Office should go back to the old way of doing things. It will be a fitting tribute to Billy Smith if his case is cited as a cautionary tale of what goes wrong when prosecutors forget that their job, above all else, is to do justice.