DALLAS — Two men are expected to be released Friday after
spending 12 years in prison for a murder they did not commit, the latest in a
string of exonerations in Dallas County. Like most of the other wrongful
convictions, these cases also hinged on faulty eyewitness identification.
Unlike most of the previous 20 Dallas County exonerations,
however, these two were cleared without DNA evidence.
The most recent cases also are unusual because two student
groups, the University of Texas-Arlington Innocence Network and the Actual
Innocence Clinic at the University of Texas-Austin, championed the case for
years before law enforcement officials re-examined the case.
“It feels wonderful,” said Natalie Ellis, a
criminal justice major at the University of Texas-Arlington who has worked on
the case daily for more than a year. “I’d have to say out of all the days
I’ve had in my life so far — this is tops.”
Two other men in custody, who were also originally
investigated, are now suspects in the killing. Authorities say one of them gave
a detailed confession to the crime after the case was reopened.
Claude Alvin Simmons Jr., 54, and Christopher Shun Scott,
39, were each sentenced to life in prison for the April 7, 1997, shooting death
of Alfonso Aguilar during a home-invasion robbery. Their convictions were based
primarily on the eyewitness testimony of Aguilar’s wife, Celia Escobedo, who
was present in their home when the killing occurred.
That identification was mistaken, said Mike Ware, head of
the Dallas County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit.
“Procedures were used that we would now consider
faulty,” he said, noting that when Escobedo went to the police department,
“because of a series of mishaps she was taken past one of the individuals
who ultimately was convicted in this case, who had been taken down for
When Escobedo saw the man sitting in a room in handcuffs,
she identified him as one of her husband’s assailants.
“That perhaps certainly got the investigation off on
the wrong foot,” Ware said.
Escobedo declined comment Wednesday.
According to public records, Simmons and Scott had no
previous history of violent crimes — only drug possession. Both men took the
stand in their trials, which were held back-to-back in 1997, and have always
maintained their innocence.
When told their names were in the process of being cleared
of murder charges Wednesday, the two men “were extremely joyous,”
said John Stickels, founder of the Innocence Network at UT-Arlington. Stickels,
who visited them in the Dallas County jail, said both men “have families
waiting for them.”
The two men who are now suspects in the crime are Don
Michael Anderson, 40, who has been charged with capital murder, and Alonzo
Hardy, 49, who has been identified as a “co-actor.”
Hardy is currently in the Texas Department of Criminal
Justice serving 30 years for an aggravated robbery conviction. He also has a
history of drug charges. Anderson, who was picked up in the Houston area
Tuesday night, has several drug charges on his record.
During the re-investigation of the case, Hardy gave an
“extensive confession,” according to the district attorney’s office,
detailing his and Anderson’s roles in the offense. The confession also cleared
Simmons and Scott from any role in the slaying.
Both men were investigated at the time of the crime,
authorities said, and Anderson was even included in a photo lineup. But
Escobedo did not pick him out. Anderson also reportedly confessed to a
girlfriend, and Adam Seidel, Simmons’ attorney, tried to introduce that
information and other witnesses implicating Anderson at trial.
But the judge, Janice Warder, did not allow the testimony to
be introduced. The jury came back with a guilty verdict in six minutes.
“Considering that all of the jury got to hear in this
case was the eyewitness identifying Mr. Simmons during the trial, then the
length of deliberation wasn’t a shock,” Seidel said. “But I will also
say it was extremely frustrating to try the case when the three witnesses that
my private investigator located were not allowed to testify.”
Warder, who served on the bench for 14 years and is now the
Cooke County district attorney, said she doesn’t remember the case. Her
decision to not allow the testimony was upheld on appeal.
In 1986, when Warder was a Dallas County assistant district
attorney, she prosecuted a case in which she was later ruled to have withheld
beneficial evidence to the defense in a rape-murder trial. A judge last year
ruled that the defendant in that case — Clay Chabot — should get a new trial.
Speaking about the Simmons and Scott case, Warder said Wednesday
that she was “extremely saddened” to hear that two men had been
wrongfully convicted, but glad that the system worked to “exonerate the
innocent and identify the guilty parties so that they’ll be brought to
The road to clearing Simmons and Scott began more than three
years ago when Simmons’ family wrote letters to the student groups. Both
organizations began investigating the cases, said Bill Allison, co-director of
the Austin center. Working together, the two groups investigated the cases, and
then contacted the district attorney’s office, which asked Dallas police to
reopen the investigation.
“There are lots of cases that have been brought to our
attention as possible innocence claims,” Ware said. “For many
reasons, this one seemed to have more red flags and credibility.”
Student investigator Ellis said she “was supposed to be
looking for DNA but as I started reading this case, there was no DNA in it. But
there was clearly something there. I just knew this case had something in it.
There were too many things that make you go ‘hmm.'”
Ellis is thrilled with the outcome. She has visited the two
wrongfully convicted men daily since they were brought back to Dallas County
prior to their expected release Friday.
Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins labeled
Wednesday “a day of celebration for law enforcement and public
safety.”Of the 20 DNA exonerations in Dallas County, all but one was the
result of faulty eyewitness testimony. A Dallas Morning News investigation last
year found discredited eyewitness identification procedures led to most of the
The Dallas Police Department has since changed the way it
handles eyewitness identifications, implementing safeguards employed by few
other cities, Chief David Kunkel said.
For instance, DPD no longer conducts “show up”
identifications where witnesses are shown suspects in the field; and in January
the department adopted a policy using the “sequential blind” method
where someone who does not know which photo is the suspect’s shows them to the
witness one at a time.
“What we’re doing in Dallas County should be a wake-up
call to everybody in the criminal justice system,” Kunkel said.
“You’re going to see county after county going through the same