Man Cleared of Rape Conviction after 25 Years
For the most part, we as Americans consider the courtroom, the prison, and the jury box part of the criminal justice system, mainly because we believe that those on trial are ultimately convicted and acquitted justly. As more and more exonerations are being announced after the discovery and review of DNA evidence, though, “criminal justice” seems too optimistic a term.
Consider the case of Steven Phillips, a Texas man who has spent 25 years in prison for a rape and burglary he did not commit. The Dallas Morning News reports that Phillips was convicted in two separate trials in 1982, and feared a third conviction, which could lead to a lengthened jail sentence.
As it stood, he reportedly faced 40 years behind bars.
According to the News, Phillips pled guilty to eight related charges-which law enforcers insisted were committed by the same person as the rape-in an effort to get the shortest jail sentence he could. Attorneys from the non-profit Innocence Project, a group that seeks to clear innocent inmates, insist that Phillips can be cleared of all charges, even those for which no DNA exists, according to sources.
It seems a judge will have to make the final call as to whether or not Phillips will be released from jail.
So how was Phillips convicted in the first place? The jury’s still out on that one. Sources indicate that eyewitnesses provided the weightiest evidence in Phillips’ trials. Yet more than one woman allegedly emphasized the rapist’s blue eyes. Phillips has green eyes.
And then there was the fact that Phillips apparently admitted to being a Peeping Tom and a sex addict. But he was not on trial for either of those charges. And criminal justice, if it is indeed just, should not allow irrelevant information to influence a decision as huge as a 40-year jail sentence.
Experts on the subject see false convictions and exonerations as presenting a three-fold problem to society. First, they serve to lessen the citizens’ confidence in their criminal justice system. Second, they mean that an actual criminal is still on the loose somewhere. And third, they ruin the lives of those falsely convicted and sent to prison.
Since 2001, Dallas County alone has seen 14 exonerations from DNA evidence, according to reports, and that trend could continue. District Attorney Craig Watkins, new to the position, started a Conviction Integrity Unit shortly after he took office, sources indicate.
Apparently, some believe he did so because he had nothing to lose-as the “new guy,” no convictions overturned would be from cases he fought. Whatever his motivations for starting the unit, though, the results have proven worthwhile.
At least Steven Phillips probably thinks so.