DALLAS - A Dallas man who prosecutors say did not commit a 1990 rape for which he served 12 years in prison should be exonerated based on recent DNA testing he did not request, a judge recommended Friday.
The conviction of 57-year-old Michael Phillips should be vacated, Dallas County Criminal District Court Judge Gracie Lewis said. The matter now goes to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals; it was not immediately clear when the court would make a ruling.
Dallas County district attorney Craig Watkins sought the exoneration after DNA testing identified another man as the culprit in the rape of a 16-year-old girl at a motel where both men lived.
Watkins has an ongoing project of reviewing untested rape kits, even without defendants initiating the request. Should the appeals court decide in Phillips' favor, it would be the 34th exoneration by Watkins' Conviction Integrity Unit.
"This is a great day for Mr. Phillips but a terrible day for our justice system," Watkins said Friday.
Phillips served 12 years in prison after entering a plea deal that he said his attorney advised him to take, fearing a jury would not side with a black man accused in the rape of a white girl who picked him out of a photo line-up. He was released in 2002 but his failure to register as a sex offender later landed him back in jail for six months. He now lives in a nursing home.
Phillips said during the hearing that he was appreciative.
"I never imagined I would live to see my name cleared," Phillips, who suffers from sickle cell anemia and uses a wheelchair, said in a news release Thursday. "I always told everyone I was innocent and now people will finally believe me."
Police and prosecutors have long aided some exonerations without having special conviction-review units, and many still do. But since Watkins started his Conviction Integrity Unit in 2007, several more prosecutors' offices across the country have created such staff teams or expert panels to review wrongful-conviction claims.
In the Dallas County unit, DNA preserved by the Southwest Institute of Forensic Sciences in sexual assault kits is tested. There was no DNA from Phillips to compare to the profile from the semen in the rape kit, Watkins said in a news release Thursday. But when the semen was put into the FBI's Combined DNA Index System, another person was identified as the perpetrator.
A district attorney's office spokeswoman said the statute of limitations has expired on the crime and that the perpetrator who was identified remains free.
The district attorney's office said his attorney at the time was Mike Morrow. When reached by The Associated Press on Thursday night, Morrow said he could not immediately recall the case from 24 years ago and had no immediate comment.