Case of Dallas Man Who Spent Three Decades in Jail for Rapes He Did Not Commit Questions Eye Witness Identification

Identity parades have been used for years and they are a mainstay of the criminal justice system in Texas and elsewhere.

But recent studies have cast doubt on the effectiveness of eye witness identification. “Studies have shown that memory and recall are more fallible than failsafe,” stated a recent article in Pacific Standard.

Ricky Dale Wyatt of Dallas, Texas, would surely agree, In January, 2012 he was released from prison after serving almost a third of a 99-year sentence for a rape he did not commit. Wyatt was incarcerated for 31 years.

The sad catalogue of errors that led to this wrongful conviction that cost a man three decades of his life, was broken down in the Pacific Standard article.

According to the Dallas Observer, lawyers for Wyatt said his jail time was the “longest stint served in Texas before having a conviction vacated.”

But more than 30 years ago, police were convinced they had the right man. They formed the opinion a single rapist had committed three rapes and arrested Wyatt for all of them.

Wyatt was identified by the third victim who was dragged into a poorly lit area and raped.

Eventually all three victims identified Wyatt from photographic lineups. There were some warning signs, however, and the third victim picked Wyatt out of a photo line-up but was not able to identify him in a live lineup.

The very existence of the live line-up was withheld from Wyatt’s defense attorney.

Wyatt paid a heavy price for protesting his innocence. He turned down a plea deal for a 5-year sentence when he stood trial for one rape – the first – and stuck to his not guilty plea. A jury convicted him.

There were inconsistencies about Wyatt’s weight. Witnesses described a heavier man and a clean shaven attacker. Wyatt had facial hair. The prosecution and police sought to reconcile these rather than question whether Wyatt was the man they were looking for.

“There was much that jurors did not know,” stated Pacific Standard. “Innocence Project lawyers who eventually fought to free Wyatt found that police and prosecutors held back exculpatory photographic evidence of the physical appearance mismatch—then-recent photographs showing Wyatt with facial hair, weight approximately 135 pounds.”

Later DNA evidence was brought in to show Wyatt was not the rapist.

Misidentification is the biggest factor behind wrongful convictions and a factor in 72 percent of cases that are overturned when DNA evidence is applied to old convictions.

These figures make a case for more rules and written protocols on the use of eyewitness evidence.

Now 10 states including Texas have brought in legislation requiring all law enforcement agencies to create written procedures. It’s a step that has been far too long in coming.

Mick Mickelsen is a nationally recognized criminal trial attorney with more than 30 years of experience defending people charged with white-collar crimes, drug offenses, sex crimes, murder, and other serious state and federal offenses.