Christopher Scott, Johnnie Lindsey and Billy Smith all have something in common. They are among more than 40 other Dallas citizens exonerated from extensive sentences imposed on them for crimes they had nothing to do with. Combined, the trio has served 63 years of their lives behind prison walls.
For the past 36 years Dallas, Texas has held a “tough on crime” policy that has landed numerous innocent young African American men in prison. The root of the problem is a District Attorney that prides himself on leading a judicial district that wins 90% of their cases. These statistics may be impressive to the judicial system, but not for individuals (and their families) spending time behind bars for false eyewitness identification.
Scott, Lindsey, and Smith are on a much more inspiring mission. The three men are working as an investigating team to gather enough evidence to give the falsely accused the freedom they deserve. Their taste of freedom after being exonerated inspired the group to create a non-profit organization committed to proving innocence when no DNA evidence is available.
Today, the three detectives pull up to a Texas prison in a Hummer instead of a paddy wagon. Their orange jumpsuits are replaced by professional business attire. This time the trio will only be visiting for a few hours, just long enough to rescue an exonerated friend of Scott’s, Jimmy O’ Steen aka Big O.
The basis for innocent individuals being convicted of crimes they did not commit is false eyewitness identification and no DNA evidence. Unfortunately, African American men are the majority of suspects incorrectly recognized and convicted. Some of the descriptions are so far off from the men accused that the only conclusion is that for white people “all African American men look the same.”
Scott’s friend, O’ Steen aka Big O is a common example of how mistaken identity goes unchecked. O’ Steen is a six-foot, 240-pound African American with a mustache. The suspect is allegedly 140-pounds, six feet tall with a clean-shaven face. O’ Steen’s license plate number is one number different from the plate reported leaving the scene of the crime. O’ Steen was convicted of robbery in 1997 and sentenced to 75 years in prison.
The investigation team is aware of the challenges they will encounter trying to exonerate their friend O’ Steen, but are persistent enough to move forward with the case no matter what obstacles are in the way. The advantage the team has for relating to their falsely accused clients is they have been in their shoes. They fight with empathy on their side.
Scott may appear to be an unlikely stereotype for someone who initiated an investigating organization, but he has plenty of experience with the job. He spent 13 years learning about the law with unyielding determination when he got himself out of prison.
Scott and his friend Claude Simmons were convicted of robbing and shooting a man in his home because the victim’s wife identified them as the suspects. Scott was convicted and sentenced based on false testimony and no DNA evidence.
Thanks to the election of a new African American DA, Craig Watkins, Scott and Simmons stood a better chance at being exonerated. Watkins changed the outdated philosophy about convictions when he began his term as a new DA., which was “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.”
In 2009 law students from a local law clinic persuaded Watkins to take another look at Scott and Simmons’s case. Because of a confession to the murder, they were exonerated. They were awarded $160,000 for each year they were wrongly imprisoned. Scott used the proceeds to purchase an expansive new home. After being cooped up in a tiny prison cell, Scott is enjoying his newfound freedom. His favorite part of the whole house is the doorknob because he knows he can open it and go out anytime he wants.
Scott claims, “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,”
The group acknowledges they have a long journey ahead of them to accomplish their goal of exonerating falsely convicted inmates. Sitting on their desk is a large stack of letters from family members of wrongfully convicted individuals pleading for their releases.
Scott has expanded his organization to include a re-entry program for exonerees. The program, House of Renewed Hope, holds regular meetings for recently released inmates to discuss and learn new methods of survival outside of prison. The investigative group is also putting together a booklet that provides suggestions whereby released inmates might have a better chance of succeeding in their new environment.
The group has a daunting task ahead of them but admits this is a more productive way to spend time than stewing in a prison cell.