This week, exonerees from Texas were featured on an NPR story about their efforts to help others in prison prove their innocence – by forming their own team of private investigators. The investigations are carried out by a group of exonerees from the House of Renewed Hope. However, the cases they take on are the ones that do not involve DNA and mostly rely on eyewitness identification.
Christopher Scott (President of the House of Renewed Hope), Johnnie Lindsey, and Billy Smith are working on a case involving a friend of Scott’s named Jimmy O’Steen. O’Steen was convicted in 1997 of armed robbery and sentenced to 75 years in prison. O’Steen told the three men how there was unreliable eyewitness identification in his case: “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.” While Scott realizes how difficult the case may be, he still has hope. His own wrongful conviction was based on eyewitness misidentification. After 12 years in prison, the real perpetrator confessed and Scott was released from prison.
Scott and other investigators were able to meet with Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins. Watkins is notable because he has shown a willingness to look at past convictions where there are now innocence issues. In O’Steen’s case, Scott had the task of convincing Watkins to revisit the case. NPR reported the following exchange:
“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.”
Even with this small success, the organization cannot rest. As word gets out, they will receive more letters from inmates and their families asking for assistance. But I have a feeling that they will be able to handle the attention.
The House of Renewed Hope and their services for exonerees and the wrongfully convicted will be an inspiration to others. California Innocence Project exoneree Brian Banks has also become an advocate for the wrongfully convicted and has attended events in support of the CIP’s clients. While not every exoneree can be such powerful advocates, each can contribute in their own way to helping others who sit in prison wrongfully incarcerated.