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Convicted Texas Man Cleared by DNA Test After 30 Years in Prison

January 4, 2011 at 5:07 PM EDT
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Cornelius Dupree was sentenced to 75 years in prison after being convicted of rape and robbery at age 19 in 1980. After 30 years behind bars, new DNA testing proved his innocence and a Texas judge overturned the conviction and cleared his name. Ray Suarez gets more on the case from Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins.

JIM LEHRER: Now the case of a man who was proven innocent after three decades in prison.

Ray Suarez has that story.

RAY SUAREZ: In 1980, Cornelius Dupree was sentenced to 75 years for aggravated robbery. The crime included abduction and rape. Dupree was released last July on parole after 30 years behind bars. One week later, DNA test results proved his innocence.

Today, a Dallas County judge overturned the conviction and officially cleared his name.

Dupree spoke to reporters afterwards.

CORNELIUS DUPREE, falsely convicted: I just feel that the system needs to be fixed by whatever means, so that this won’t happen to anyone else. That’s about all I have to say.

RAY SUAREZ: Dupree served more time than any other Texas inmate exonerated by DNA evidence. Since 2001, Texas has freed 41 wrongly convicted inmates through the use of DNA. That’s more than any other state.

For more, we’re joined by the Dallas County district attorney, Craig Watkins.

And, Mr. Watkins, Cornelius Dupree, as we have mentioned, was in jail for decades. Hadn’t he maintained his innocence all along and tried to win a reexamination of his case?

CRAIG WATKINS, Dallas County district attorney: Fortunately, Mr. Dupree stuck to his core belief and hoped that the justice system would work for him one day. And that did today. And he was freed for a crime he didn’t commit.

RAY SUAREZ: But how come it took so long, sir? How come it took so long to win a reexamination of the evidence?

CRAIG WATKINS: Well, I think it’s a perfect question.

I became the district attorney four years ago. And upon becoming DA, we opened a unit that specifically looks at claims of innocence. And Mr. Dupree happened to be one of those individuals. And as a result of the unit that we put in place, we have been able to exonerate several individuals.

Since 2001, there have been 25 individuals from Dallas County that have been exonerated. And most of those have been exonerated within the last four years. And we will continue to make sure that we seek justice, not only for victims, but for those who have been wrongly accused.

RAY SUAREZ: Do Texas counties have a set of ground rules about how long they keep physical evidence? You had this evidence on file for Mr. Dupree. Did you have to hold on to it?

CRAIG WATKINS: No, we didn’t.

And that’s another issue that we will be dealing with, with the forthcoming legislative session. We believe that there should be a standard in place, not only in Texas, but through all states, of how long — or how we store biological evidence.

One thing that does bode well for us here in Dallas County is the fact that we kept the evidence. And you look at the 25 exonerations that we have had here in this county, a lot of individuals will chalk it up to Dallas County or Texas.

That’s not the case. We just kept the evidence, and we were able to go back in this case and in several other cases several years to look at that evidence to determine if a person committed a crime.

RAY SUAREZ: So, are you comfortable in saying that there are likely other falsely convicted men in Texas prisons who won’t have the opportunity that Mr. Dupree had simply because their counties no longer have the evidence from their case?

CRAIG WATKINS: I think any district attorney that holds office within this state or within this country who doesn’t recognize the fact that there are individuals in prison that are innocent loses credibility.

We have a problem within our criminal justice system. It needs to be fixed. And in order for our justice system to work as it should, we need to convict the guilty and make — and make sure that the innocent go free.

And, so, yes, there are innocent individuals in Texas prisons and prisons throughout this country. But it’s our responsibility, the elected DAs, the prosecutors, to take this issue, own it, and make sure that we fix it.

RAY SUAREZ: At the same time as DNA science has been getting better, as the tools around DNA use has been getting better, has it been harder for convicted men and women to reopen their cases using DNA?

CRAIG WATKINS: Well, I mean, if you look at the last 10 years, obviously, because we have had the science.

But for those individuals where there was no science, and because Texas saw the need to put a law in place which allowed us to go back and look at these cases, we have been in a position to make sure that we can examine these old cases, use the current technology, the science, to look at those cases. And, if the person is truly guilty, then it will prove their guilt. If they are innocent, then it will prove that they should be exonerated.

And I would hope that all district attorneys throughout our country embrace not only science, but what’s caused several of these individuals to be wrongfully convicted. And it’s not limited to science.

If you look at the 25 wrongfully convicted individuals out of Dallas County, we can focus on one area, not just science, but the fact that eyewitness identification and the way it had been used in the past is flawed.

Every one of these individuals that were wrongfully convicted were identified by a victim or a witness, and those identifications were wrong.

RAY SUAREZ: So, what do you do about eyewitness evidence? I mean, you’re asking crime victims in court to identify the men who they believe, in this case, abducted and raped them. And they say, yes, these are them. Can you throw out eyewitness evidence?

CRAIG WATKINS: No, but I think we can better serve our citizens by ensuring that we use a very different method than we have used in the past.

We need to go to what’s called a double-blind system. It’s used in pharmaceutical testing. And it gives us the ability — and it’s not a foolproof — nothing will be foolproof — but it will give us the ability to better serve our citizens and make sure that, when we do ask for an eyewitness identification, that we at least are getting closer to having the right individual.

And, also, we need to not only limit it to eyewitness identification. There needs to be more evidence there, as opposed to just what a person may have seen or may have not seen.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there any men right now or women in Dallas County who are in the pipeline, in the process of having their cases reopened, so they may win freedom, like Mr. Dupree?

CRAIG WATKINS: Yes. In Dallas County, a few years ago, we started what we call the Conviction Integrity Unit. That unit is specifically designed to look at these claims of innocence. We reinvestigate the case. We test it if there is any biological evidence available, and we look at current technology and techniques to determine if a person committed a crime.

And so, yes, we have several individuals in the pipeline. I think it bodes well for Dallas County, for Texas, our Conviction Integrity Unit. And we would implore all district attorneys to have an integrity unit within their own office and to seek out these individuals that may have been wrongfully convicted.

It does a great service to our criminal justice system. We’re not here — as DAs, we’re not here to seek convictions. We’re here to seek justice.

RAY SUAREZ: District Attorney Watkins, thanks for joining us.