DALLAS – Two men wrongly convicted of capital murder in Texas 12 years ago are expected to be released from prison this week after another man confessed to the crime, the Dallas County district attorney announced Wednesday.
Claude Simmons Jr., 54, and Christopher Scott, 39, received life sentences for the 1997 murder of Alfonso Aguilar.
“Twelve years later, with the help of the Dallas Police Department, we’re going to right that wrong of the past and ensure that those two individuals are freed by the weekend,” Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins said.
He credited a joint investigation between the Dallas Police Department’s Cold Case Unit and the Conviction Integrity Unit of the prosecutor’s office for the men’s pending release, calling it “a great day for the criminal justice system.”
Prosecutors said another man, Alonzo Hardy, 49, confessed to the crime in a sworn statement from prison last summer. His alleged accomplice, Don Michael Anderson, 40, was arrested Tuesday night in the Houston area. Anderson was charged with capital murder, but Hardy has not yet been charged.
Hardy, who has been in state prison since 1999, is serving a 30-year-sentence on an unrelated aggravated robbery committed about a year after the murder, prosecutors said.
Although Dallas County leads the nation in DNA exonerations, Watkins said that Simmons and Scott were “the first two cases where DNA was not an issue” in their being freed.
Aguilar’s widow misidentified Scott as one of the murderers after seeing him in handcuffs, shortly after he was taken into custody, said Michael Ware, who leads the county’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which examines possible innocence cases.
“This is a classic misidentification, eyewitness case,” said Simmons’ attorney, John Stickels. “The Dallas Police Department worked with what they had at the time.
“We’re not blaming the Dallas Police Department, we don’t think they’ve done anything wrong,” said Stickels, director of the University of Texas at Arlington Innocence Network.
Dallas police Chief David Kunkle said his department has been making changes to its lineup system and other practices to reduce the number of eyewitness misidentifications.
On April 7, 1997, two men forced their way into a Dallas home that was known for selling drugs with the intent of robbing the house, said Ware, an assistant district attorney. Aguilar, who was at the house, was fatally shot in the chest.
Simmons and Scott, friends who had visited the house in the past, have consistently maintained their innocence, said Scott’s attorney, Michelle Moore.
After hearing of their pending release, “Chris (Scott) was grinning from ear to ear and Claude (Simmons), it was hard for him to stop crying,” said Moore, an assistant public defender. “He is very, very grateful; very thankful. He sings nothing but praise for everybody who helped in this.”
Anderson and Hardy were mentioned as suspects during the original investigation. Anderson apparently confessed, but a trial judge refused to allow the jury to hear that evidence during the 1997 trials, prosecutors said, explaining that they did not know the reasons.
“I’m not here to assign blame. I’m here with the Dallas Police Department, to correct an injustice,” Watkins said.
The Texas Center for Actual Innocence at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Law along with students at UTA’s Innocence Network brought the case to the district attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit last year.
“The real hero in this whole process is Mr. Watkins, because he opened up the process to public scrutiny,” Stickels said. “He made a conscious decision to stop doing business as usual and to try to do the right thing in the criminal justice system and it has paid off.”