Richard Miles was 19 years old when Dallas police officers picked him up, placed him in the back of a squad car and drove him to the scene of a shooting, where an eyewitness identified him as the man who had killed a driver and severely injured his passenger.
Miles denied it. He detailed his whereabouts the night of May 16, 1994. But Miles matched the description of a man who fled the scene, according to the same witness. He'd end up spending more than a decade in prison.
Miles told that story Thursday, during the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission’s first meeting.
“I was merely walking home,” he said, “and my life completely changed.”
Timothy Cole, the commission’s namesake, shares a similar story, wrongfully convicted in a rape case that led to a 25-year prison sentence. He died in prison but was posthumously exonerated, thanks to DNA evidence.
Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill in June creating the commission, which is charged for one year with studying exonerations since Jan. 1, 2010, to identify what went wrong and recommend how to prevent future wrongful convictions. Cole’s family was present Thursday to see an audio slideshow and video paying him tribute, and commissioners began a conversation about what they’d like to accomplish.
The 11-member commission includes state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, Chairman and state Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller in her capacity as chair of the Texas Indigent Defense Commission.
Legislators who long pushed for the commission's creation, state Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-Houston, and state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, told commissioners they are moving a step closer to ensuring justice in Texas.
“This is a breakthrough moment in the history of Texas criminal justice,” McClendon said, adding that victims of crime deserve closure based on truth, and that taxpayer money should not be wasted on getting it wrong in the criminal justice system. “I urge you to make the utmost of the time and the talent available to carry out this mission. And we have talent that’s just magnificent.”
Commissioners should ask “probative questions” to advance the mission, Ellis said.
“‘What lessons can we learn?’” he said, adding that criminal justice reform is an effort politicians from both parties are getting behind. “You do not have to have a 'D' or an 'R' in front of your name.”
Commissioners discussed their discretion to probe weaknesses in the criminal justice system, suggesting that videotaped confessions and line-up irregularities are among among topics for review. They are also keeping abreast of updates regarding the interpretation of mixed DNA and the implementation of recommendations from the 2010 Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions.
Miles asked the commission to study protecting evidence at the time of an arrest, witness validity, resources available for public defenders and relief opportunities post-conviction.
Dallas County prosecutors built a case against Miles around one witness’ testimony and evidence of gunpowder residue on Miles’ right hand, though other witnesses said he didn’t commit the crime. Miles testified that he had never held a gun and the matches he used to smoke likely produced chemicals that resembled the residue.
Miles was convicted in 1995 of murder and attempted murder and sentenced to 60 years in prison. A 1997 appeal attempt in 1997 failed, but a nonprofit organization that investigates wrongful convictions dug up police reports that weren’t disclosed to Miles’ legal team. Because of backlog, it took 10 years for the group to begin work on Miles’ case.
“I had 60 years,” he said, “so I had nowhere to go.”
Anthony Graves — who himself was exonerated of a 1992 murder because of false testimony — said the commission is just the first step. The legislature and governor have to act, too, he said.
“The Legislature has to act on those recommendations," he said. "Otherwise, it’s goodwill going to waste.”