Undoing Injustice

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If you ask attorney Walter Reaves why he started representing wrongly convicted prisoners in Texas with their innocence claims, he’ll tell you it just kind of happened. It wasn’t a conscious career choice. He didn’t wake up one day and feel compelled. He simply comes across one case after another that involve gross injustice. “I’ve always had a soft spot for people I think are getting screwed around or got screwed around,” he says.

Reaves worked as a criminal defense attorney in Waco for two decades before he took on his first case of someone who had been wrongly convicted. In the mid-1990s, a court appointed him to represent Calvin Washington, a Waco man convicted of a 1986 murder and sexual assault. The case against Washington and co-defendant Joe Sidney Williams—like so many wrongful convictions in Texas—was based on snitch testimony and flimsy forensic evidence— in this case, a bite mark. “So it didn’t take much to convince me that they’d gotten screwed around and to jump in and help them,” Reaves said. DNA testing would later lead to Washington’s 2001 exoneration.

“I never did make a conscious decision to start pursuing innocence cases. Once we handled [the Washington case], I just started getting more and more people contacting me about those kinds of cases,” Reaves says. “The grapevine in prison is a very powerful thing.”

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Not long after the Washington case, Reaves came to represent a death row inmate named Cameron Todd Willingham who was convicted of starting the 1991 house fire that killed his three children. Willingham would become his most famous client. The forensic evidence against Willingham was utterly flawed. There was, in fact, no evidence that the fire was intentionally set. Though Reaves obtained a report from a renowned fire expert that showed the evidence in the case was bunk, Willingham was executed anyway in February 2004. His case has since become a cause celebre for death penalty opponents. (The Texas Forensic Science Commission will continue its investigation of the Willingham case at its meeting in January.)

Meanwhile, Reaves has moved on to working pro bono to free other wrongly convicted men from prison. He’s currently working on the cases of two men recently profiled by the Observer: Ed Graf, convicted of arson, and Warren Horinek, a former Forth Worth police officer convicted of murdering his wife. Both men were convicted on flawed forensic evidence.

Reaves continually sees defendants sent to prison on what is essentially junk science. “I think there needs to be a way to put some check on scientific evidence, especially when it’s the key evidence in the trial,” he says. “There needs to be either a higher standard put on the admissibility of that type of evidence or some kind of corroboration requirement—that you’ve got to have some kind of corroborating evidence, something more than just [scientific testimony].”

In the meantime, Reaves will keep working to rectify the mistakes of the Texas justice system.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.