Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Dallas citizen spends 12 years in prison, after wrongful conviction

By all appearances, Christopher Scott doesn't stand out as a Dallas citizen. He lives in a nice home, drives a nice car and has raised two sons. Fourteen years ago, however, Scott lost everything when Dallas County wrongly convicted him of capital murder.

His story is not as uncommon as one might think. Rather, Dallas County stands out as an epicenter in the nationwide movement to overturn wrongful convictions, according to Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins. Working with the Innocence Project of Texas, Watkins' Conviction Integrity Unit has worked to free dozens of wrongly imprisoned citizens in recent years, often with the help of DNA testing.

As of 2010, 269 post-exoneration cases have occurred in the United States, and Texas leads the way with 42. Of that 42, almost half have occurred in Dallas County. Scott's story starts off like many other exonerees:' with a case of misidentification.

After leaving his home to buy a Dr. Pepper at a local store, Scott and his friend Claude Simmons were taken by police on the lookout for a murderer. The two did not match the original description of the shooter, they had no gunshot residue on them, and no other physical evidence linked them to the murder.

Scott was charged with the murder of Alfonzo Aguilar, who had been killed in front of his wife during a home-invasion robbery. Aguilar's wife, Celia Escobedo, was brought to the jail, put in a room with Scott and asked if he were the shooter. She identified him as the shooter and he was charged with capital murder.

At the beginning of the trial, the judge asked Scott why the state should not seek the death penalty in his case. Scott replied, "You shouldn't kill an innocent man." He would later credit this statement with saving his life.

Capital murder cases have two options when it comes to punishment: life in prison or the death penalty. Scott may have beaten the death penalty, but he faced a capital life sentence with a minimum of 40 years before the option of parole.

During trial, seven police officers testified that, based on their findings, Scott was not guilty. The only evidence that the prosecution utilized during the trail was testimony from Celia Escobedo, despite the fact that Scott did not match her initial description to the police.

The entire proceedings lasted half a day and the jury took one more day to deliberate. When the jury came back with the guilty verdict, Scott was in shock. "The only good thing about it was I was not going to death row," Scott said. "If I was on death row, right now I would probably be dead."

Scott said his time in prison led to a stage of depression. Scott felt he had to focus his energy to remain positive, while biding his time in jail. "I can't put an amount on the degree of faith and hope I had to have to endure what I did and go through what I went through," Scott said.

After more than a decade of maintaining his innocence, Scott's fight for justice paid off with the help of two local student groups. The University of Texas at Arlington Innocence Network and the Actual Innocence Clinic at the University of Texas at Austin worked to prove his innocence when the case was reopened.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals officially cleared Scott of capital murder in March 2010, five months after his release from prison. Scott's case is distinct from many other appeals, as his conviction was based solely on a poor eyewitness testimony and lacked any DNA evidence.

Scott cited one hole in the system, explaining that he only met with his court-appointed attorney once and that there are no rules regarding how many times defense attorneys should meet with their clients in capital murder cases.

"I brought that up in Austin—How could this be happening on a capital murder case?" Scott said. "But it's really happening. You are not being represented right."

Some within the justice system have made attempts to address these issues. Assistant District Attorney and SMU alum Cynthia Garza works with the Conviction Integrity Unit, established by DA Watkins in July of 2007. The unit oversees the post-conviction review of more than 400 DNA cases and is the first of its kind in the United States.

Garza and the CIU aim to aid other inmates who are in the same situation as Scott was. Garza acknowledged issues within the legal system regarding post-conviction exonerations. However, she holds that problems are intrinsic to any system. "I think the system is currently working at the best level that it can be with what we have now," Garza said. "There are flaws in the system, like everything else."

But Garza also said that exonerations do play an important role in efforts to improve the system. "There are changes in the legislature that have come about because of the exonerations," Garza said.

Justice was done for Christopher Scott on Oct. 23, 2009, when he was exonerated. He has since devoted his time to reaching out to other wrong convicted individuals and aiding other recent exonerees. Scott founded The House of Renewed Hope, an organization that aims to support and encourage newly released exonerees to assimilate them back into society.

Scott also meets with a brotherhood of exonerees, a group of seven men who meet monthly to provide emotional support to one another. The men attend one another's family gatherings including birthdays, weddings, and funerals.

Claude Simmons, a brotherhood member, and Scott were two of the first exonerees to be eligible for financial compensation under the Timothy Cole Act, which was signed into Texas law in 2009. The statute increased payment to exonerated inmates from $50,000 to $80,000 for each year they spent in prison.

Both men struggled to get any of the financial compensation for several months and did not receive any of the non-monetary benefits open to paroled prisoners, according to Jaimie Page, University of Texas at Arlington exoneree project director. But this was not the only hardship for Scott. He has also dealt with being away from his two children for a majority of their childhoods.

Before his incarceration, Scott was working as a produce manager at a local grocery store and raising his two sons who are now both adults. Since his exoneration, he has reunited with both sons and reestablished a good relationship with them.

Scott also hopes to affect systemic change by getting lawmakers to look for solutions to problems associated with re-entering society after years of unjust imprisonment.

Original report here

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