UT Law’s Actual Innocence Clinic Helps Prove Innocence of Dallas Man Wrongly Convicted

Oct. 26, 2009

AUSTIN, Texas — The Actual Innocence Clinic at The University of Texas School of Law has proved, in collaboration with The University of Texas-Arlington and the Dallas County District Attorney's Office, the innocence of a Dallas man who spent more than 12 years in Texas prisons for a murder he did not commit.

Actual Innocence Clinic hearing
Claude Simmons, seated far left, and Christopher Scott, seated right, at their exoneration hearing in a Dallas courtroom on Oct. 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.Photo: Jay Brousseau

This is the first exoneration by clinic faculty and students, and on Oct. 23 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 clinic staff attorney, David Sheppard, board member of the Texas Center for Actual Innocence, and John Stickels, director of the The University of Texas-Arlington Innocence Network and an assistant professor in criminology, represent  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 district attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit, which then started a full-fledged joint investigation with the Dallas Police Department's Cold Case Unit last summer. The Dallas County district attorney announced on Oct. 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."

The clinic and the Texas Center for Actual Innocence (TCAI), a non-profit corporation not formally associated with the Law School, were created in 2003 through the work and inspiration of UT Law Professor 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 the clinic's staff attorney, Dowling, teach the clinic. This fall they were joined by four journalism students and two journalism faculty, Kate Dawson and Bill Minutaglio, in a collaborative educational experience.

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

"One of the reasons this worked out so well as a non-DNA case is there were multiple innocence organizations working on it and the Dallas district attorney's commitment to finding out what was going on," Dowling said.  "I don't think it would have happened without so many involved parties. I'm really proud of the contribution the clinic and our students have made to this case and every other case we work on."

For more information, contact: Laura Castro, director of media relations, School of Law, 512-825-9525 (cell).

7 Comments to "UT Law’s Actual Innocence Clinic Helps Prove Innocence of Dallas Man Wrongly Convicted"

1.  Geofrey said on Nov. 6, 2009

We contacted the School of Law with regard to a particular case that was highly politically motivated, yet they declined to help. The case is full of corruption, false documentation and all out lying by detectives who have been brought out in related trials, but UT Law declines the case. The family cannot afford high dollar attorneys, and the court appointed attorney has not done anything in over a year, although she states this is a slam dunk case. What does it take to get desperately needed help for innocent people?

2.  Alexander said on Nov. 14, 2009

It's sad to think that such blatant corruption is still a part of our society. Amazing work you all did to bring the truth to light. I can't imagine the anger I would have toward those who took 12 years of my life for their own selfish and worthless reasons. Don't ever stop fighting!

3.  LYTRENDA MITCHELL said on Nov. 20, 2009

I need your help to prove my husband's innocence. Please help me get him out of prison. I will do whatever it takes.

4.  Lilly Rivas said on Dec. 17, 2009

My son was also convicted (he was 17 at the time of the offense) of capital murder due to the law of parties. He was sentenced to life for a murder he did not commit. He is now 25 years of age. I believe we all should be clamoring for the removal of this horrible, unreasonable law. You are basically made responsible for the actions of another. This law assumes that you are a mind reader and can anticipate what another will do. We are trying to appeal this case, but are running into brick walls. If anyone knows who I can turn to, please, please let me know.

5.  Anna Marie said on Dec. 21, 2009

Lilly: My nephews are in a similar situation, and I am not sure how to help them. One of them was convicted of 40 years in prison for manslaughter, kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon, and he claims he was not even there, and I totally believe him. Our system is crazy. So many men going to prison for crimes they did not commit. If you find a place that can help, please let me know. I will do the same.

6.  Nikole Harper said on Jan. 18, 2010

I would like to know if you do any work outside the state of Texas. I have a friend in prison who has been there 13 years. I myself have gone over mountains of trial transcripts, motiions and appeals. I cannot find any evidence for this man to be in prison. Everything they have said in this trial was contradicted somewhere else in the trial. The prosecutor has since been disbarred and imprisoned himself for a load of crimes involving the law. There is no physical evidence tying him to this crime, and I would like to know what I can do to help him out. Thanks.

7.  Brenda S. said on Feb. 19, 2010

My son was convicted to 20 years in prison for deferred probation violation for a reduced charge of aggravated assault in 2008 and an accusing witness could not be found and never showed up. Later in 2008 he was charged with two counts of aggravated sexual assault with one resulting in being found Innocent at trial and the other dismissed because the accuser didn't show and couldn't be found. But the judge still violated the probation and sentence him to the max of 20 years. Is there anything we can do. His court appointed attorney did OK at trial but not so good at the revocation hearing. He presented no witnesses and the ADA presented about 15 witnesses that included detectives, DNA techs, doctors, probation supervisor, and policeman, but not the actual accusing witness. The only thing they could really prove is that he solicited a prostitute who was an undercover cop, and he had already served time in jail for that crime and continued back on probation in August 2008. They never proved he did these sexual assaults, but yet he is awaiting the jail chain to prison. He maintains his innocence of these charges. Is there anything we can do to get this conviction overturned? Thanks.

Signed A Mother in Pain