Government Technology

DNA Test Releases Man After 23 Years in Prison



April 17, 2008 By

Thomas McGowan, who spent 23 years in prison for a Dallas County, Texas, rape and burglary, walked out of court yesterday a free man, exonerated by DNA evidence that eliminated him as the perpetrator.

According to the Innocence Project, which represents him, in two separate trials in 1985 and 1986, McGowan was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and burglary and sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison. DNA testing on a rape kit collected from the victim proves that he was not the man who broke into her home in May 1985, stole several items and raped her.

McGowan will be the 25th person in Texas -- and the 13th person in Dallas County -- proven innocent through DNA testing after eyewitness misidentification led to a wrongful conviction, said the Innocence Project in a release. Overall, 31 people have been exonerated through DNA testing in Texas, 14 of them in Dallas County.

"Thomas McGowan was in his mid-20s when he was arrested, and he'll turn 50 later this year. He has lost nearly his entire adult life to a wrongful conviction that could have -- and should have -- been prevented," said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. "This is the 25th case in Texas where DNA proved that eyewitness identification was incorrect. How many more people need to lose years or decades of their lives before the state implements simple reforms that are proven to make eyewitness identification more accurate?"

The victim in McGowan's case initially viewed a live lineup with three men who police thought might be suspects in the crime and three "fillers." She did not identify any of the men as her attacker. Later, she was shown a photo array with seven photos - but there were effectively only three photos in the array, since two of them were photocopies of photographs, one was a black-and-white photo (all the others were in color), and one was marked "Garland Police Department" (while the remaining three were marked "Richardson Police Department," which is where the crime took place). The victim said she "thought" the man in one of the three photos was her assailant, and the police officer administering the lineup told her "You have to be sure, yes or no." When she testified in court, the victim recounted the officer's instructions: "He said if I was going to say it was somebody, if I was going to say it was that picture, I had to be sure. He said I couldn't think it was him. He said I had to make a positive ID. I had to say yes or no." After hearing the officer's instructions, the victim said the man in the photo - Thomas McGowan - was "definitely" the man who attacked her. The victim's identification of McGowan was the central evidence against him.

The Innocence Project took McGowan's case in April 2007. The Dallas County District Attorney's Office helped secure the evidence for DNA testing and moved quickly to resolve the case. Mike Ware, head of the Conviction Integrity Unit, and Assistant District Attorney Michael Moss handled the case promptly and efficiently, the Innocence Project said.


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