Burden of Innocence
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photo of anthony robinsonanthony robinson

Year of incident: 1986
Conviction: Sexual assault
Sentence: 27 years
Year of conviction: 1987
Released from prison:
Paroled in 1997, on
mandatory supervision
due to overcrowding
of prisons
Year of exoneration: 2000
Sentence served: 10 years

On Jan. 8, 1986, Anthony Robinson was picking up a car for a friend at the University of Houston when university police blocked the parking lot, pulled him out of the car, and arrested him. They said that Robinson, a 26-year-old college graduate who had served two years in the U.S. Army, matched the description that a rape victim had given of her attacker: a black man wearing a plaid shirt. The victim, a white student at the university, had also told them that her attacker had a mustache (Robinson did not); smelled of cigarette smoke (he did not smoke); had no money (Robinson had $169 on him); and that he apologized to her, saying he had just gotten out of prison and had not had sex in a long time (Robinson had never been to prison). Nonetheless, the police brought Robinson to the crime scene, where the victim identified him as the rapist.

Protesting his innocence, Robinson went to trial with a court-appointed defense attorney. The prosecution, who called the victim a "dream witness" -- white, attractive, smart, and articulate -- relied heavily on her identification of Robinson. At the time, DNA testing was not yet admitted as evidence in courts in Harris County, Texas. Despite the facts that Robinson did not match the victim's initial description of her attacker and that his fingerprints did not match those taken from the crime scene, a jury convicted him of sexual assault and sentenced him to 27 years in prison.

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In November 1996, after serving nine years and 10 months in a state penitentiary, Robinson was released on parole and placed under mandatory supervision. Determined to have his case reopened and get a DNA analysis of the evidence in order to prove his innocence, he worked day and night, taking whatever jobs he could, to earn money to pay for a lawyer. After 12 attorneys turned him down, he found Randy Schaffer, who had experience with DNA appeals and was impressed by Robinson's determination to clear his name. After much resistance from the Harris County district attorney's office, Schaffer was finally granted permission to test the evidence from the case. On Sept. 19, 2000, the DNA test came back and did not match Robinson.

The district attorney's office insisted on testing the evidence as well. These tests confirmed Robinson's innocence. At this point, the prosecutor invoked what is known as the "unindicted co-ejaculator" theory, claiming that Robinson did rape the victim, but that the DNA belonged to a third party with whom she had had consensual sex.

photo of anthony robinson

Robinson with his pardon.

Despite the prosecution's protests, Robinson's sentence was reversed, and he was pardoned by then-Governor George W. Bush on Nov. 14, 2000.

At the time, the wrongfully convicted in Texas received a flat fee of $25,000, plus $25,000 for medical expenses. State Sen. Rodney Ellis had recently proposed legislation increasing the compensation to $25,000 for each year of incarceration. He felt like he needed a "poster child" to pass such a bill, however, and Robinson was the perfect candidate. In April 2001, Robinson testified before the State Senate; the Compensation to Persons Wrongfully Imprisoned bill was approved a few weeks later. Robinson eventually received $250,000 under the new law.

For three years after his release, Robinson kept a log book noting where he was, at what time, who he was with -- even what bus he took, with bus drivers' names -- to account for every minute of his day. He has since stopped keeping a log, but is still paranoid about a future arrest. "You just don't turn fear off," he explained to FRONTLINE. "Anything could happen. You could be picked up tomorrow and you could be arrested, could be sentenced to some ungodly number of years, and serve a large portion of those years before anybody ever decides to actually take a look at the evidence. You're always afraid of being put back in the cage."

Sen. Ellis helped raise funds to pay for Robinson's tuition to the Thurgood Marshall Law School. [August 2006 Update: Robinson graduated from law school and is pursuing a degree in Chinese law with plans to work as a consultant in international trade and law.]

The prosecution still maintains Robinson is guilty.


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published may 1, 2003

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