A Dallas man who spent 17 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit walked free Wednesday, exonerated by a confession from an executed cop killer. Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson apologized to Quintin Lee Alonzo, who will likely receive some financial compensation, but will never get those years back.
This is your regular reminder that innocent people are jailed more often than prosecutors would like to admit, and a plug for Jessica Pishko’s relevant story from earlier this month on Dallas County’s Conviction Integrity Unit. That unit, the first of its kind in the country, was set up under former DA Craig Watkins. Whether it’s working today is sure to be an issue in this year’s marquee local election for district attorney, which pits Democratic challenger John Creuzot against the incumbent Faith Johnson. It’s not hard to see how Alonzo getting his long overdue freedom could be turned into a political issue this fall. This is from Pishko’s story:
As the CIU (Conviction Integrity Unit) became an issue in the Democratic primary, with both Creuzot and Elizabeth Frizell suggesting that the unit has not been as effective as it could be, Johnson defended her work. She noted the appointment of an additional attorney to the CIU in August of 2017, a move that brought the total staff to three full-time attorneys, one assistant, and one investigator.
The CIU chief reports directly to Johnson, which her office says is different from her predecessor.
“The CIU at the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office remains a leader in the field of Conviction Integrity,” Johnson said. “In fact, other DA Offices around the country continue to contact us looking for advice and ideas on how to model their CIUs using our mold and best practices.”
One problem on which both (Richard Miles, an exoneree) and Johnson’s office agree is that the process to exonerate a person takes longer than the original conviction. As a result, people wait years—often longer than their original sentence—for DNA to get tested or lost evidence to be located. Johnson’s office said in a statement that non-DNA cases “are very challenging cases requiring time-intensive investigations that are often slow-moving for a variety of reasons.”Johnson’s office also said that the CIU has reviewed the cases of 145 individuals since she took office in January 2017 under the direction of Cynthia Garza, who was formally appointed chief of the unit last July. Johnson’s office did not detail the results of the reviews, and it appears that a review could be anything from a full reinvestigation to a reading of the file.
Some of this delay is the result of the Texas process, which requires more than just a prosecutor’s say-so, although a DA’s blessing is an important step. There is at least one case, that of Timmy Duke, who was recommended for exoneration by Johnson’s office. Duke had pled guilty in 1992 to a robbery, but records showed that he was incarcerated at the time of the crime and, as a result, could not have committed it. His case is pending before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
But, there is some concern from groups and exonerees that the CIU doesn’t go far enough. There is a reason why CIUs are so powerful: they are run by district attorneys who have all of the information and can see where mistakes were made. Watkins added that the DA was “very powerful,” and asserted that DAs could make pretty much any decision they chose.