Texas Man is First to be Cleared of Rape Through a DNA Test He Did Not Request

The Texas criminal justice system makes many firsts and few of them are for enviable reasons.

Last week a 57-year-old Texas man who spent 12 years in prison for rape, was exonerated in a case that legal experts said marked the first time in which someone has been cleared of a crime by DNA testing that was not requested by the convicted person.

The National Registry of Exonerations said while hundreds of people have been exonerated through DNA testing, Phillips has become the first exonerated by DNA through systematic testing by a prosecutor’s office even though he hadn’t requested the testing. The National Registry of Exoneration is a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.

Michael Phillips was released from prison in 2002, Prosecutors said his innocence was proven by a new program by the Dallas County district attorney’s office in which untested rape kits are analyzed, even if the defendant does not make a request.

In 2012 we noted how new legislation aimed at eliminating a backlog of rape kits.

“Untested rape kits should not just sit on a shelf and collect dust. The exoneration continues to expose the past weakness in our criminal justice system,” Dallas County prosecutor Craig Watkins said in a statement, the Washington Post reported.

Phillips was exonerated at a hearing last Friday. In 1990 he was convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl at a motel in Dallas. The Washington Post reported Phillips had pleaded guilty because, he later said, his attorney told him that as a black man charged with raping a white teenager, he should aim to avoid a jury trial. He was imprisoned for 12 years and, after his release, spent another six months in jail after he failed to register as a sex offender. Philips challenged his conviction in court but when that failed, he gave up trying to clear his name.

Media reports said the culprit in the 1990 rape lived in the same motel as Phillips and was later identified through DNA testing but cannot be prosecuted because due to the fact the statute of limitations has expired.

The Washington Post reported on how Phillips was surprised to hear he had been exonerated. He lives in a nursing home and is wheelchair bound from sickle-cell anemia.

“I never imagined I would live to see my name cleared. I always told everyone I was innocent and now people will finally believe me,” he said in a statement.

Phillips is entitled to $80,000 compensation for each year of wrongful conviction plus an additional $80,000 each year for life, under Texas law.

This is just the latest in a long and high profile series of exonerations we have seen in Texas in recent years. If you have been charged with a serious sexual offense, it is important to hire experienced criminal defense attorneys.

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.