This is the first in an occasional series of articles and video by former Observer Managing Editor Michael May investigating wrongful conviction claims. May is working with filmmaker Jamie Meltzer on a documentary, Freedom Fighters, about the efforts of a group of exonerees from Dallas who have launched their own detective agency to find and help innocent prisoners.
Three men sit around a table at Hickory House BBQ in Dallas, overdressed for brisket in their caps and fedoras, knit shirts and gold watches. It’s a welcome change from prison white. The three men—Chris Scott, Johnnie Lindsey and Steven Phillips—spent decades behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit, more than 60 years combined. They were eventually released because of the tireless advocacy of law students and pro bono lawyers, and they’re determined to repay the favor. They’ve created an exoneree detective agency, perhaps the first of its kind, and they’re dedicated to investigating innocence cases, even the ones that seem hopeless at first glance. A stack of letters sits on the table, all from prisoners who say they are innocent and are desperate for someone to listen to their story. The exonerees know that feeling better than anyone. The hard part is choosing which cases to dig into.
I met Scott, Lindsey and Phillips for the first time in 2011 while reporting a story for The Texas Observer. They were part of an organization called the Texas Exoneree Project, made up of dozens of exonerees living in the Dallas area. The men met monthly to share the frustrations of picking up their lives after spending years or decades locked in a cell.
Chris Scott, like almost all of the Dallas exonerees, was the victim of a mistaken identification. He was convicted of capital murder for a 1997 crime where two men had robbed and shot a man in his own home. Scott fit the description, and the police brought him into the station for questioning. While he was sitting on a bench in handcuffs, a police officer brought the wife of the victim over to Scott. She was the only eyewitness to the crime. “It sounded like the police said, ‘Is this the man who killed your husband?’” Scott remembers. “I knew it was bad because she was crying hysterically.”
This is about as far from a proper police lineup as it gets. But once the police had a positive identification, they stopped looking for other suspects, even though there wasn’t any other evidence that Scott committed the crime. A week later, they arrested the man Scott had been with that evening, an acquaintance named Claude Simmons.
A jury convicted Scott and Simmons and they were sent to prison in 1997. With no DNA evidence to test, a prison lawyer gave Scott a one-in-a-million chance of getting out. But in 2009, law students from the University of Texas at Arlington convinced Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins to reopen the case. Watkins, the city’s first black DA, has made it his mission to free innocent prisoners, even creating a unit to specifically investigate innocence cases. During the investigation, one of the men who actually did the murder confessed in detail to the crime. Watkins had never before recommended freeing a prisoner without DNA evidence, but in October 2009, Scott and Simmons were declared innocent and released from prison. They had been locked up for almost 13 years.
While the ability to test and match DNA evidence proved that eyewitness testimony was often unreliable, cases like Scott’s and Simmons’ unmask an even more uncomfortable truth—that we can’t rely on DNA evidence alone to free innocent prisoners. Despite this, many organizations that investigate innocence claims won’t take non-DNA cases, even though they make up more than 90 percent of criminal convictions. According to the national Innocence Project, there’s “consensus that proving innocence on appeal without the scientific proof of DNA results can be an uphill battle.”
When I met Scott in 2011, he laid out his vision to create a team of exonerees that would take up the time-consuming work of investigating non-DNA cases. In the years since that conversation, my friend and collaborator, the filmmaker Jamie Meltzer, began to follow the group closely for a documentary film, Freedom Fighters. Scott created a nonprofit, the House of Renewed Hope, and formed his team, including other exonerees like Lindsey and Phillips. As word of their efforts spread through the prisons, desperate prisoners sent letters pleading their cases. Without DNA evidence, these cases require real shoe-leather investigations. And it turns out that it’s easier to put someone in prison than to get them out.
Back at Hickory House BBQ, Scott, Lindsey and Phillips go through the latest stack of mail. There are several letters from convicted child abusers who say they were framed. There’s a letter from a rapist who says someone else by the same name committed his crime. One letter includes a short note and a report from an analyst saying a fingerprint is not his, with no other information about the case. The letters are often difficult to follow, written by desperate prisoners who are focused on the minute details of their case.
Scott opens a letter from a prisoner named Isaiah Hill and begins reading. It turns out the letter is actually written by his “cellie” or cellmate, because Hill is illiterate. In the letter, his cellie sets out the details of Hill’s case, writing that Hill was convicted of robbing a hotel in Brownwood, Texas. The letter stated he was convicted by an all-white jury on the basis of shaky eyewitness testimony. According to the letter, the Brown County district attorney told Hill, “This is a white folks’ town and if you don’t take this plea bargain I’m going to make an example out of you.” Hill pleaded not guilty, but the jury convicted him in 1978 and he was given a life sentence. Even if he was guilty, it’s still arguably unjust that Texas would keep a man in prison for 36 years for a crime where no one was physically hurt.
“He felt the same way I did,” Lindsey said after reading the letter. Lindsey spent 26 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. “I didn’t do it so I’m not going to admit to it.”
Scott also sees reflections of his own case: The feeling of being judged more for his skin color than on the evidence. The unreliable eyewitness. The lack of DNA to prove his innocence and the desperation of years in prison. And the persistence. “Isaiah Hill has written three or four times,” says Scott. “When you get that many letters, it makes you think something might be there.”
Watch a segment of a visit with Isaiah Hill from Freedom Fighters.
The men decided to take a closer look at the case, and, in November of last year, Scott, Lindsey, myself and the Freedom Fighters film crew went to interview Hill at the Robertson Unit, a maximum security prison outside of Abilene. Inside, Hill sat in a room the size of a closet bordered by plate glass and illuminated by fluorescent lights, which gave his skin an unearthly yellow hue. He was bald and hunched with thin wounded eyes. Scott picked up the telephone on the other side of the glass and asked him to tell his story.
The words tumbled out of Hill in stops and starts. His slight stutter only amplified the urgency in his voice. He said he had come from Austin to Brownwood, where the robbery took place, with a man named Don Wallace, whom he had met while in jail for another crime, and Don’s girlfriend Dianne Clemons. They arrived at a Holiday Inn and Don Wallace went to check them in. When he returned, according to Hill, he said, “I just cashed a $100 bill and the guy has a sack of money. I’m going to go back and get that.”
Hill says he told him he didn’t want any part of that. Later that night, Hill told Scott, he was watching TV with Clemons in the room when Wallace robbed the front desk. Ten minutes later, the cops were at the door and Wallace told them that Hill did it. He said the cops didn’t find the money or anything else on him. Beginning to cry, like he still couldn’t believe it, Hill said the DA told him he would make an example of him. “That’s what he did. He gave me life, man.”
At the time, we didn’t know anything about the case other than what Hill had told us. But his desperation was raw and visceral. Here was a man whose time in prison had very nearly destroyed him. Between the often-jumbled narrative of his case, other details emerged. He said he had been diagnosed as severely learning disabled at a young age. He said that shortly after arriving in prison he was gang-raped by four men and that the prisoner-activist David Ruiz had helped him file suit against the Texas prison system and he had been transferred to federal prison. He kept returning to the rape again and again, spitting out graphic details with a grimace, telling us he’d never been the same. More than once he broke down.
“Don’t give up,” Scott told him in a soothing tone. “They gave me a one-in-a-million chance of getting out, because I didn’t have any DNA. And look what I’m doing now. Don’t give up.”
“God bless you. Thank you,” Hill said, before offering a final plea, his voice cracking. “Please get me out of prison, man.”
The car was silent on the three-hour drive back to Dallas. This was the third prison interview we’d done with a prisoner that claimed his innocence, but this one drained us. Hill stood out for both his desperation and his deteriorated mental condition. “I saw a broken-down, shattered man,” says Scott, “He’s a man with the will to fight but he’s losing that will. I hate to see a battered old man wasting away in prison.”
Hill’s case is 40 years old, and almost every lead seemed to hit a dead end. His defense attorney, former Texas legislator Lynn Nabers, is dead. So is Dianne Clemons. We haven’t been able to find Don Wallace or the clerk who identified Hill, Tammy Blanton. It took us months to just find the trial transcripts: The Brownwood courthouse where Hill was tried didn’t have them—it flooded decades ago and many documents were reduced to soggy pulp. A copy was supposed to have been sent to the appeals court in Eastland, Texas—but they didn’t have it either. Neither did the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the Texas Attorney General’s Office, nor the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. It was the one of the first lessons Scott would learn from the Hill case: The older the case, the harder it is to find new evidence. “Witnesses are dead, paperwork destroyed,” says Scott. “Dealing with a case this old means it’s hard to break. The information just isn’t out there anymore.”
After months of phone calls and the aid of several resourceful court clerks, we found the transcript at the National Archives at Fort Worth. And the transcripts revealed a story that was considerably murkier than what Hill had laid out, which is perhaps not surprising. The whole affair can seem like some sort of surreal farce. The crime happened on July 30, 1977. According to the clerk’s testimony in court, when Don Wallace checks into the hotel, he tells the clerk, apropos of nothing, that he needs an extra bed because he’s gay and wants one to “jerk off” in and another for sleeping. Apparently, he did this so he would only have to pay for one guest, although three of them were staying in the room. Then, throughout the night, Hill and Wallace gallivanted around the hotel partying with other guests. One of the guests took a polaroid of Hill in a comically large afro-wig, which was entered into evidence. Then, at 5 a.m., either Wallace or Hill robbed the clerk at the very same hotel they were staying at and then went back to their room. When the police arrived, Wallace told them that Hill was the main they were looking for and gave permission to search the room.
Hill left out some of the facts, including this whopper: The cops testified that they found a yellow-handled pocket-knife on Hill, just like the one used in the robbery. There could be an explanation for that, if you are willing to believe that Wallace or the police set Hill up—but it made Scott wonder what really happened. “Why didn’t he tell me he was caught with the knife?” Scott says. “No matter how a person carries himself, if he doesn’t tell the whole truth, it’s hard to get to the bottom of what really happened.”
The lead prosecutor in the case, Brown County Assistant District Attorney Stephen Ellis, had just begun his career. He is now a judge in Brownwood. The DA at the time, Gary Price, has advanced dementia and couldn’t be interviewed. I told Ellis about Hill’s accusation that Price told him that he should accept a plea bargain because it was a “white folks’ town.”
“That doesn’t sound like Gary Price,” says Ellis. “I would be shocked if he said anything like that. And I certainly don’t believe that or ever said that.”
Ellis still remembers the case and said that the corroborating evidence was strong. “I remember we had a photograph of the defendant dressed in an afro wig and ring, like the witness described, and we found the knife,” says Ellis.
But in many other ways the case does indeed read like a primer for how not to conduct an eyewitness identification. After the police arrested Hill in his hotel room, they put handcuffs on him and walked right by the clerk who was robbed, Tammy Blanton. The Brownwood police didn’t even hold a lineup; they just paraded their suspect right by the victim. This was very similar to how the misidentification happened in Scott’s case. Even Ellis says that the encounter was unfortunate but says it was basically unavoidable. “The police were taking him through the lobby to the police car,” he said. “It all happened so quickly. This was inadvertent, there wasn’t any kind of police collusion. This issue was appropriately raised by the defense, and has been dealt with on appeal.”
This wasn’t the only problem with the eyewitness identification. Even after seeing Hill in custody, Blanton told Hill’s attorney, Lynn Nabers, that he didn’t get a good enough look at the man who robbed him to identify him. “I got mixed up, even after I told the police it wasn’t right,” he said on the stand. Blanton also recounted in court that he wasn’t initially sure that Hill was the man who had robbed him.
On the day of the trial, Blanton took the stand and pointed at Isaiah Hill and said that was the man who robbed him. He didn’t repeat any of his early admissions. And, in one particularly revealing passage, under Nabers’ cross examination, he admitted that he had consulted with the prosecution over his testimony.
“Did they tell you to be more certain?” Nabers asked.
“Yes,” Blanton responded.
Ellis remembers talking to Blanton, but adamantly denies Nabers’ implication that he had influenced him. “I did talk to him, but I didn’t suggest to him to say anything that wasn’t true. I wanted him to tell the truth, nothing more,” he says.
Adding to the confusion and doubt was the fact that neither Wallace nor Clemons answered their subpoenas and showed up for the trial. This meant that Hill’s lawyer was unable to question the man who initially accused Hill of committing the crime. And during the jury deliberations, a juror brought in a newspaper article describing Hill as a habitual criminal—a big no-no. “You can’t have a fair trial when a juror reads aloud that the defendant is a habitual criminal,” says Scott.
However, this issue was brought up on appeal, along with the problems with the eyewitness identification. The appellate court upheld the conviction, citing jurors’ signed statements that the article did not affect their verdict. As for the fact that Blanton observed Hill being led through the lobby in handcuffs, the appeals court ruled that his identification was still valid because he had several opportunities to observe Hill, not just when he was brought to the lobby in handcuffs. It remains a fact that Texas has held a man in prison for 36 years for a crime where no one was injured or killed. “This was back in the day,” says Ellis. “If you had two prior felonies, life sentence was the only option. But I’m surprised he’s still in prison.”
Hill’s legal options may have run out—unless, perhaps, Scott can find Don Wallace or Tammy Blanton and have them recant their testimony. It just may be that too much time has passed to sort out the truth of what happened that summer night in Brownwood almost 40 years ago. It’s also possible that Hill is, in fact, guilty. Chris Scott has considered this, and he still wants to help. “My heart goes out to him,” says Scott. “He’s been raped in prison. He kept coming back to that over and over. When he closes his eyes, he’s replaying that scene in his head. He’s been violated. I just want this guy to get out and enjoy the rest of his life he has left. I don’t see him being a threat to society.”
From the lobbying work he’s done in Austin, Scott has made allies of several lawmakers. He hopes to at least convince someone to talk to the parole board about Isaiah Hill. “Even if he did do the crime, hasn’t he suffered enough?” says Scott. “It’s cruel and unusual punishment.”
Scott’s not giving up on the Hill case, but he has learned some tough lessons. “It’s good to learn on the fly,” says Scott. “But sometimes we don’t have the experience to know if someone is telling the truth.” So, as he and the other exonerees consider their next case, Scott says they’re going to make sure there’s a clear path to exoneration. “I want to finish what I’ve started,” he continues. “Because I know there are other guys in prison that are innocent. I’ve been there. It’s my duty to help those guys that can’t help themselves.”