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Mon April 15, 2013

Exoneree Detectives Fight For Those Still Behind Bars

Originally published on Tue April 16, 2013 8:35 am

Christopher Scott, Johnnie Lindsey and Billy Smith drive down a desolate highway toward a prison in East Texas. They've all been there before, serving hard time — 63 years among the three of them.

But this time it's different. They're driving a Hummer. They're dressed to the nines. And they're on a mission. They aim to get an inmate out — a friend of Scott's named Jimmy O'Steen, aka Big O. But this will be a slow-motion prison break. Scott, Lindsey and Smith are all exonerated prisoners.

Dallas is home to more than 40 exonerees — people who have been released from prison because they were proved innocent. These Dallas exonerees have formed a club of sorts to help others as they're released.

But the group has gone beyond group therapy. They've formed their own detective agency, looking to crack the hardest innocence cases: The ones where there's no DNA to test; ones that often rely solely on eyewitness identification.

Scott believes O'Steen is one of those innocents, and he aims to prove it. Inside the prison, the men sit across from O'Steen in a small barren room to discuss his case. O'Steen was convicted of armed robbery in 1997 and sentenced to 75 years in prison.

"The suspect was supposed to be 140 pounds, 6 feet tall. I was 240-plus. The suspect had a clean-shaven face ... I had a moustache. There was two cars that fit the description. But my license plate number supposed to have been the closest one to the person," O'Steen explains.

"We both been in that same chair you're sitting in, with the same situation, so ... we're on your side until the end," Lindsey says. "But I got one question to ask: Are you guilty?"

"No," O'Steen answers.

Trying To Crack The Hardest Cases

The men know just how tough it will be to get O'Steen out without DNA evidence to test. It's going to take a real shoe-leather investigation.

"If we able to crack this, and get it to where this man get exonerated, it will put us on a whole new level — whole new playing field," Scott says.

Scott, 42, is handsome, with short hair, a goatee and a movie star smile. His teeth were rotted out from years in prison, but nothing $30,000 of reconstructive dental surgery couldn't fix.

He may seem like an odd choice to put together a team of private investigators, but in the almost 13 years he spent working to get himself out of prison, he learned a lot about the law — and about perseverance.

"The struggle I went through to get out [of prison], I said, well, I gotta do something to try to make it better for the other individual[s] who are in prison right now," he says.

Scott's case, like most of the other exonerees, was based on mistaken eyewitness identification. It was 1997, and two men had robbed and shot a man in his own home. The cops thought Scott and his friend Claude Simmons fit the description given by the victim's wife. They were convicted on her testimony.

With no DNA evidence to turn to, a prison lawyer gave Scott a million-in-one chance of getting out. But Scott says he's a fighter, not a quitter. He kept sending letters to anyone who might be able to help.

Meanwhile, Dallas justice was being transformed. For most of the 20th century, Dallas prosecutors were proudly "tough on crime." That philosophy was personified by former District Attorney Henry Wade, who held the post for a record 36 years.

Wade's prosecutors won more than 90 percent of their cases. But that number doesn't seem as impressive now as it once did.

"I guess I can sum it up in one colloquial they used in that time," says current D.A. Craig Watkins. "A good prosecutor can get a guilty verdict on a person that's guilty. But a great prosecutor is one that can get a guilty verdict on an innocent individual."

Watkins, first elected in 2006, is not in the Wade mold. He's also the city's first black D.A., and was willing to take a new look at some questionable past convictions.

"We reinvestigated the cases [to conduct] a legitimate investigation. Which in most of those cases was not had," he says.

In 2009, students from a nearby law clinic convinced Watkins to reopen Scott and Simmons' case. One of the men who actually committed the murder confessed in detail. Watkins had never recommended releasing a prisoner without DNA proof, but in October 2009, Scott and Simmons found themselves in a courtroom, standing in front of Judge Robert Burns.

"The evidence supports a final finding of fact showing that each defendant in these two cases is actually innocent," the judge read to a breakout of applause.

Texas gives exonerees $160,000 for every year served. Today, Scott lives alone in a sprawling five-bedroom house. After years of living in a cell, he says he enjoys the space.

Before his arrest, he was living with his girlfriend and his two sons, but the relationship didn't last. He's now trying to figure out how to be a father again to his kids, who are 23 and 24.

On a recent Saturday, Scott was at home preparing for a meeting of his nonprofit, House of Renewed Hope, an association of former exonerees. The men meet regularly to help each other deal with the struggles of re-entering the free world and are now working on a booklet for other exonerees.

The group members arrive one by one, in button-down shirts, leather shoes and fedoras. Steven Phillips is among them. He was exonerated before Scott, and gave Scott money and a place to stay after his release. Phillips reads from a letter he's received from a prisoner's family member.

"I was wondering if your organization would be willing to help me get my brother-in-law out of jail," he reads. "He was wrongly accused with no evidence, and will now be sent to prison in a couple of weeks for something that he didn't do. Please help."

The group has a pile of letters just like that. And while they can't help with every case, they decide they'll follow up on this one.

'All Of Us Fit The Same Type Of Description'

The men have also worked hard to lobby for criminal justice reform in the state. They're frequent visitors to the Texas Capitol in Austin. Last session, they helped pass new rules for eyewitness identification. In March, Christopher Scott and other exonerees were honored on the floor of the state House.

But goodwill is not enough to change laws. That's why Scott and his group are working on getting O'Steen exonerated, meeting with witnesses and the district attorney.

O'Steen's case is difficult. There are only a few ways to overturn a non-DNA conviction: Get the actual perpetrator to confess, for example; or have a witness recant testimony. So far, there's been no break in O'Steen's case, but Scott's not giving up.

The guys from the House of Renewed Hope recently met with Dallas D.A. Watkins. They brought O'Steen's trial transcript along.

"In my whole 13 years, me and this guy did 12 years on the same wing together," Scott tells the D.A. The description used to arrest O'Steen, Scott says, was vague.

"At that time, all of us being convicted of a crime, all of us fit the same type of description, man," Scott says. "A mid-aged guy, medium height, medium weight with a low haircut. "How many people you describing when you describe that?"

"So automatically, y'all have credibility with this office because you've experienced it," Watkins tells the group. "That in itself is enough for us to take a look at this."

It's a measure of how far these men have come. Instead of stewing in cramped prison cells, they're out, key players working to change things. Still, Scott knows all too well how long it could take to get O'Steen out, even with the district attorney onboard. So he's got his team opening other cases, as well.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Now, our top story today - two people are dead and roughly 100 injured. That's after a pair of explosions tore into a crowd of runners and onlookers at the today's Boston Marathon. We'll bring you developments throughout the program. But for the next several minutes, we're going to Dallas, Texas.

BLOCK: It's home to more than 40 exonerees; those are people who have been released from prison because they were proved innocent. These Dallas exonerees have formed a kind club to help others as they're released with the transition to life on the outside.

And, as Michael May reports, they're now going beyond group therapy. They're forming their own detective agency to find and free other innocents.

MICHAEL MAY, BYLINE: Chris Scott, Johnnie Lindsey and Billy Smith drive down a desolate highway toward a prison in east Texas. They've all been there before, served hard time - 63 years between the three of them. But this time it's different - way different. They're driving a Hummer. They're dressed to the nines. And they're on a mission.

CHRISTOPHER SCOTT: You got one shot. You've got to make it count.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You got to make it good, you know.

MAY: They aim to get an inmate out, a friend of Scott's named Jimmy O'Steen, aka Big O. But this will be a slow-motion prison break. These men are all exonerated prisoners.

Scott believes O'Steen is innocent and he aims to prove it. Lindsey and Smith want to hear O'Steen's story for themselves.

SCOTT: First off, how did they know to come to him? You know? It had to be something that link him with something that made them come to his house.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I think the most important thing that we need to ask him is for his honesty.

SCOTT: That's the bottom-line. Let's get to the truth of this matter.

MAY: Chris Scott has put together a team of exonerees to crack the hardest innocence cases; the ones where there's no DNA to test, ones that often rely solely on eyewitness identification.

O'Steen is their first investigation.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRISON DOOR OPENING)

MAY: Inside the prison, the men sit across from O'Steen in a small barren room to discuss his case.

JIMMY O'STEEN: The suspect was supposed to be 140 pounds, 6 feet tall. I was 240-plus. The suspect had a clean-shaven face with a (unintelligible) covering his (unintelligible) - I had a moustache. There was two cars that fit the description. But my license plate number was supposed to have been the closest.

SCOTT: And they got the color...

O'STEEN: A black on white.

SCOTT: Black on white and what color is your car?

O'STEEN: Burgundy and white.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Burgundy?

SCOTT: We both been in that same chair you're sitting in, with the same situation. So we will be - we're on your side until the end. But I've got one question to ask. Are you guilty?

O'STEEN: No. ,

MAY: After an hour and a half interview, back in the Hummer, the men compare notes. They know just how tough it'll be to get O'Steen out without DNA evidence to test. It's going to take a real shoe-leather investigation.

SCOTT: Well, you know, if we able to crack this and get it to where you know this man get exonerated, it will put us on a whole new level, man. A whole new playing field.

MAY: Chris Scott is 42 and handsome - short hair, goatee and a movie star smile. His teeth were rotted out from years in prison, but nothing $30,000 of reconstructive dental surgery couldn't fix. He may seem like an odd choice to put together a team of private investigators, but in the almost 13 years that Scott spent working on getting himself out of prison, he learned a lot about the law and about perseverance.

SCOTT: You know, it was so many different organizations turned us down. You know, to where, you know, then nobody want to help. But a lot of us was on our last leg. So when I seen that in the struggle that I went through to get out of prison, I said, well, I got to do something to try to make it better for the other individuals that's in prison right now.

MAY: Scott's case, like most of the other, was based on mistaken eyewitness identification. It was 1997, two men had robbed and shot a man in his own home. The cops thought Scott and his friend, Claude Simmons, fit the description given by the victim's wife. And it's on her testimony that they were convicted.

With no DNA evidence to turn to, a prison lawyer gave Scott a million-in-one chance of getting out.

SCOTT: You know, they kind of scared me for a minute. But I know the type of person I am - I'm not a quitter. I'm always a fighter.

MAY: Scott kept sending letters to anyone who might be able to help. Meanwhile, Dallas justice was being transformed.

For most of the 20th century, Dallas prosecutors were proudly tough on crime. That philosophy was personified by D.A. Henry Wade, who held the post for a record 36 years. His prosecutors won more than 90 percent of their cases. But that number doesn't seem as impressive now as it once did.

Here's current D.A. Craig Watkins.

CRAIG WATKINS: Well, I guess I can sum it up in one colloquial that they used in that time. A good prosecutor can get a guilty verdict on a person that's guilty but a great prosecutor is one that can get a guilty verdict on an innocent individual.

MAY: Craig Watkins was first elected in 2006. He is not in the Wade mold. He's also the city's first black D.A., and he was willing to take a new look at some questionable past convictions.

WATKINS: We reinvestigated the cases. A legitimate investigation...

(LAUGHTER)

WATKINS: ...which in most of those cases was not had.

MAY: In 2009, students from a nearby law clinic convinced Watkins to reopen Scott and Simmons' case. One of the men who actually did the murder confessed in detail. Watkins had never recommended releasing a prisoner without DNA proof, but in October of 2009, Chris Scott and Claude Simmons found themselves standing in front of Judge Robert Burns.

JUDGE ROBERT BURNS: The evidence supports a final finding of fact showing that each defendant in these two cases are actually innocent.

(APPLAUSE)

MAY: Around a dozen other exonerated prisoners were in the crowd in court that day.

Scott lives alone in a sprawling five-bedroom house. Texas now gives 160,000 for every year served. After years of living in a cell, he enjoys having the space.

Before his arrest, he was living with his girlfriend and his two sons. His relationship didn't last. He's now trying to figure out how to be a father again to his kids, who are 23 and 24.

SCOTT: You know, to me, in being honest, you know, I deal with these guys more than I do my immediately family. This is the support group right here.

MAY: On a recent Saturday, Scott was at home preparing for a meeting of his nonprofit, the House of Renewed Hope, an association of former exonerees. He even baked a lemon cake for them.

SCOTT: You know, I get into the mood every now and then to bake a cake or something. It ain't hard.

MAY: Rest of the guys arrive one by one in button-down shirts, leather shoes, fedoras.

They grab sandwiches and cake and sit down on couches in Scott's large living room.

STEVEN PHILLIPS: Hey, you guys. I got a letter.

MAY: That's Steven Phillips. He was exonerated before Scott, and gave Scott money and a place to stay after his release.

PHILLIPS: I was wondering if your organization would be willing to help me and my family get my brother-in-law out of jail. He was wrongly accused with no evidence, and now will be sent to prison in a couple of weeks for something that he didn't do. Please help.

MAY: They have a pile of letters just like that. And while they can't help with every case, they decide they'll follow up on this one.

JAIME PAGE: This is what you worked on the last time. And when I'm...

MAY: A sociologist at the University of Texas, named Jaime Page, first brought the exonerees together four years ago, to help each other deal with the struggles of re-entering the free world. Now they're working on a booklet of advice for exonerees, based on what they've gone through.

PAGE: When we go to these conferences every year, I always hear it's kind of a double-edged sword to hear Dallas exonerees talk. You got something special in each other. But there's exonerees and this is part of the reason for this booklet. They're out in the middle of nowhere, they don't have another exoneree - period.

MAY: They decide to include a contact number.

In the booklet, they deal with health issues, managing your money and romantic relationships. Many exonerees were convicted on false accusations of rape.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We have to get used to being around women again. We got to get used to trusting a woman again. We got to get used to understanding a woman again - that's hard. It's hard.

MAY: The booklet also deals with relating to the family members who abandoned them.

JOHNNY LINDSEY: A distrust come about because at the time that I needed someone, more than anything, it wasn't there.

MAY: That's Johnny Lindsey. We met him in the Hummer going to the prison. Only his sister and mother kept in touch during his 26 years in prison. Since then, others have come back around, some of them asking for money. He was awarded around $4 million for his time. But the biggest piece of advice: Realize you're not going to get over it.

PAGE: What could you say to them to encourage them to go counseling?

LINDSEY: I think first thing, he's got to put his pride aside. You want everybody to think you're okay and you're actually not, but it's the pride that keeps you from seeking help. And I'm saying that from self experience. It hit me last night like a ton of bricks.

MAY: Lindsey's mom was ill for most of his time in prison and she died just a year after he was released. He still can't get over the fact that he wasn't around to care for her.

LINDSEY: And then when I thought about 26 years, man, that's a long time. That's a long time. And my sister, she just walked over and just grabbed me and held my head up to her stomach. And, you know, she said, baby, it's okay. You're at home now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The chair recognizes representative...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Members, if I could just have your attention.

MAY: The exonerees are frequent visitors to the Texas capital where they lobby for criminal justice reform. Last session, they helped pass new rules for eyewitness identification. This year, they were honored on the House floor.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: What we can do is to ensure that fewer people have to endure what you did.

MAY: Afterwards, they met with one of their allies, Representative Rafael Anchia.

RAFAEL ANCHIA: Look, I don't know anybody who has a bill pending through this session that gets 150 members of the legislature comes hug them. Like, that happened today. I mean, that just does not happen.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I mean, they was lined up, (unintelligible) line to the very last one.

MAY: But it's not enough to change laws and that's why Scott's working on getting O'Steen exonerated.

SCOTT: Take me through the story from the beginning to the end.

MAY: He's meeting with witnesses like Jody Bixby(ph). She worked the register at the thrift store O'Steen was convicted of robbing.

SCOTT: This is the lineup. Do you think you still can pick out Jimmy Lee O'Steen out of that photograph?

JODY BIXBY: No, I don't think so. I think I have tried to block everything out.

MAY: O'Steen's case is difficult. There are only a few ways to overturn a non-DNA conviction. Get the actual perpetrator to confess, have a witness recant testimony. So far, there hasn't been a break, but Scott's not giving up.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Good morning.

SCOTT: Mr. Watkins' office, please.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: And you are?

SCOTT: Christopher Scott.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Christopher Scott.

MAY: The guys from the House of Renewed Hope have an appointment with the D.A. today.

SCOTT: What's going on, Mr. Watkins?

WATKINS: What's going on? All right. What's happening?

SCOTT: You okay?

WATKINS: I'm good.

MAY: They brought O'Steen's trial transcript.

WATKINS: This is the case?

SCOTT: Yeah. This is generally (unintelligible) right here. In my whole 13 years, me and this guy did 12 years on the same wing together.

MAY: Scott tells the Watkins the description used to arrest Jimmy O'Steen was vague.

SCOTT: At that time, all of us being convicted of a crime, all of us fit the same type of description, man. Maybe a mid-aged black guy, medium height, medium weight with a low haircut. How many people you describing when you describe that?

You describe that, you gonna have the black man, you know, probably in America.

WATKINS: So automatically, you guys have credibility with this office because you've experienced it. That in itself is enough for us to take a look at this.

MAY: And that's a measure of just how far these men have come. Instead of stewing in cramped prison cells, they're out, key players working to change things. Still, Scott knows all too well how long it could take to get O'Steen out, even with the D.A. onboard. So he's got his team opening other cases, as well. For NPR News, I'm Michael May.

BLOCK: May and filmmaker Jimmy Meltzer are following the story for a documentary called "Freedom Fighters." You can see a trailer and learn more about the men profiled in the story at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.