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October 23, 2009

Actual Innocence Clinic helps exonerate wrongfully convicted men

Photo of Claude Simmons and Christopher Scott.

Claude Simmons, seated far left, and Christopher Scott, seated right, at their exoneration hearing in a Dallas courtroom on October 23, 2009. Standing are Tiffany Dowling of the Actual Innocence Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, and Dallas County Public Defender Michelle Moore, far right.

The Actual Innocence Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law has proved, in collaboration with UT Arlington and the Dallas County District Attorney's Office, the innocence of a Dallas man who spent more than twelve years in Texas prisons for a murder he did not commit. This is the first exoneration by Law School clinical faculty and students and on Friday, October 23, 2009, their client, Claude Simmons, walked out of a Dallas courtroom a free man.

A second Dallas man, Christopher Scott, who was also wrongly convicted of the same 1997 murder, also walked free following an exoneration hearing for the two men, who had always maintained their innocence. The Actual Innocence Clinic worked to investigate the case for both Simmons and Scott, although Scott is represented by Michelle Moore of the Dallas County Public Defender’s Office. Tiffany Dowling, UT Law's Actual Innocence Clinic staff attorney; David Sheppard, board member of the Texas Center for Actual Innocence; and John Stickels, director of the the University of Texas at Arlington Innocence Network and an assistant professor in criminology, represented Simmons.

The double exoneration of capital murder makes the case unique in Dallas. But the case is also unusual because unlike most exoneration cases, Simmons and Scott were cleared without DNA evidence and with the help of two student innocence groups who worked independently on the case for years before collaborating.

The students and faculty at the Actual Innocence Clinic and UT Arlington's Innocence Network were responsible for bringing the case to the attention of the Dallas County District Attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit, which then launched a full-fledged joint investigation with the Dallas Police Department's Cold Case Unit last summer. The Dallas County District Attorney's office announced on October 21 that the joint investigation had resulted in an arrest and capital murder charge against one man, and charges against another man already in prison. The arrests cleared the way for Simmons and Scott to be exonerated.

"The exoneration of an innocent man under circumstances like these is as important and as gratifying as any achievement can be," said UT Law Dean Larry Sager. "The students and faculty associated with the Actual Innocence Clinic and the groups with which they worked on this case are to be congratulated and thanked for their commitment to justice. I am very proud of them on the Law School's behalf. Professor Bob Dawson worked to establish the Actual Innocence Clinic, and devoted himself throughout his fine career to the cause of justice. Were he alive, he would take great pleasure and satisfaction from the Clinic's achievement."

Both the clinic and the Texas Center for Actual Innocence (TCAI), a nonprofit corporation which is not formally associated with the Law School, were created in 2003 through the work and inspiration of Law School professor Bob Dawson, who died in 2005. The Clinic is one of four projects of the TCAI. The members of the Center's board of directors and Dowling teach the Clinic. This fall they were joined by four journalism students and two journalism faculty—including Bob Dawson’s daughter, Kate Dawson, and Bill Minutaglio—in a collaborative educational experience.

Dowling and Sheppard led the Actual Innocence Clinic's investigative team for Simmons's exoneration case. Dowling is in charge of the day to day clinic operations. Sheppard is a long-time member of the faculty and a founding member of the TCAI and the Clinic. Clinic law students bridging several semesters also worked on the case.

"This is one of the few non-DNA exonerations in Dallas County and the collaborative process, working together with Mr. Stickels and the Dallas County District Attorney's Felony Integrity Unit, has been educational and rewarding," said Bill Allison, who is also a founding member of the TCAI and the Clinic, and director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at UT Law.

Dowling said she found out by phone on October 21 that an exoneration hearing had been set for Simmons and Scott. "I was very excited, our years of hard work paid off and the collaboration that everybody had made was really working out," Dowling said. "And I was very excited for Mr. Simmons and Mr. Scott to go home. We are all very excited that Mr. Simmons and Mr. Scott will be getting out and going home. Because it was a non-DNA case it took a lot of effort and investigation. It was a collaborative effort by all of the involved parties, and I am glad all of the clinic’s work has paid off. I’m really proud of the contribution the clinic and our students have made to this case and every other case we work on."

Related links

Dallas Morning News article, “2 men wrongly convicted in 1997 Dallas murder to be exonerated

Contact

Kirston Fortune, UT Law Communications, 512-471-7330, or kfortune@law.utexas.edu