DALLAS - Twenty-five years after he was convicted of rape, Larry Fuller walked out of court a free man Tuesday when a judge ruled that DNA testing proved his innocence — the 10th such exoneration in Dallas County in five years.
"There's no bitterness. That's what life's about, trial and tribulation," said Fuller, who carried two worn Bibles to a brief afternoon hearing. "My faith was tested, and I won."
At the end of the hearing, Assistant District Attorney John Rolater apologized to Fuller, who responded: "Thank you. Apology accepted."
"I forgave them a long time ago; the day I was convicted," Fuller, 57, said as he accepted hugs from his attorneys, brother and other relatives he described as "my amen corner."
Barry Scheck, co-director of the New York-based Innocence Project and one of Fuller's attorneys, called for an independent commission to look into Dallas' wrongful convictions "and see what is going on." But Rolater said the number is not out of line.
Fuller was convicted of aggravated rape and sentenced to 50 years in 1981. A 37-year-old woman said he was the man who broke into her apartment and raped her, using a butcher knife to cut her thumb, neck and back as she struggled.
The victim looked at two photo lineups, both of which included Fuller. She picked him in the second one, even though Fuller was bearded in the picture and she said her attacker had no facial hair.
State District Judge Lana McDaniel, who freed Fuller, said she felt sick to her stomach thinking about the injustice that had been committed. "What do I say other than I wish you well and apologize on behalf of the state of Texas," she told him.
Texas passed a law in 2001 setting out a procedure for re-examining certain convictions with DNA testing. Nearly all of the overturned convictions from Dallas County were handed down in the 1980s, before the advent of DNA analysis.
"If you have 10 plane crashes at the same airport, you would want to find out what is going on and how we can fix it," Scheck said.
Rolater, however, said he does not think there is a pattern to the wrongful convictions.
"I have looked at those cases and they involve four different agencies, quite a number of different prosecutors and courts. That does not indicate there was a rogue cop, a rogue court or a rogue prosecutor," he said.
Rolater said his office handles 20,000 felony cases a year. "One person wrongfully convicted is a tragedy," he said. "That person's life has been ruined, we have a crime victim who had closure whose life has been ripped back open and there's still someone out on the street."
Dallas prosecutors initially objected to DNA testing in Fuller's case because they thought it would be compromised by the DNA of a consensual sex partner, Rolater said.
When a judge ordered the testing, samples from a number of individuals were taken and compared to make certain the DNA sample taken from the victim could have belonged only to her attacker, he said.
"We are making a lot of progress in Dallas County," Scheck said. "They are beginning to expedite the process of getting the DNA testing we're seeking."
Rolater said DNA testing in the past five years has confirmed the guilt of nine men. Testing is under way in eight other cases.
Nationwide, 185 people have been cleared through DNA after their convictions, Scheck said. In most cases, testimony from mistaken eyewitness identification led to the wrongful conviction, he explained.
2 DNA exonerations here
According to David Dow, director of the Houston-based Texas Innocence Network, there have been two DNA exonerations in Harris County.
Jeff Blackburn, director of the Innocence Project of Texas, said Fuller will not be fully exonerated until he receives a pardon from the governor or the conviction is set aside by the Court of Criminal Appeals.
"It is real quick when it comes to conviction and real slow when it comes to exonerating," he said.
Under state law, Fuller is eligible for as much as 0,000 in compensation once the appeals court or governor acts.
At the time of his conviction, Fuller was a decorated 32-year-old Vietnam veteran. He was pursing a career in art.
On the rape conviction he served 18 years before being paroled in 1999. He was returned to prison last year after he failed a drug test that was a condition of his parole.