Cornelius Dupree, Jr. gets his life back

Cornelius Dupree and his wife, Selma Perkins Dupree

By Alan Bean

Exoneration stories out of Dallas County are almost becoming routine, but this one is particularly gratifying. 

And maddening.

Cornelius Dupree Jr. spent three decades in prison because the Dallas Police Department thought he and his buddy, Anthony Massingill, looked like rapists.  They placed both men in a lineup.  An eye witness also thought the two men looked like rapists.

Cornelius was 21 at the time, Anthony was 19.

The media likes DNA exoneration stories.  Who doesn’t.  Because guilt has been scientifically ruled out, we know who the good guys and bad guys are.  Even the prosecutor is forced to admit that he messed up. 

Most innocent people can’t prove their innocence.  They can sometimes show that the state’s case is riddled with inconsistencies, or that alternative theories of the crime make more sense than the state’s theory.  But, apart from compelling DNA evidence, innocence can rarely be proven. 

Even a confession from the actual perpetrator is sometimes insufficient to get an innocent man out of prison.

Anthony Massingill is still locked up.  DNA evidence proves he wasn’t guilty of rape in this case, but he was also convicted of raping another woman in a similar crime.  Investigators reasoned that if he was involved in rape number one he probably did rape number two as well.

What will happen, I wonder, if there is no conclusively exonerating DNA evidence for the second rape (police are still looking into the matter).  It is possible that Massingill could be released anyway.  Back in 1979, police were sure that both rapes were committed by the same two men; so if Massingill is cleared in the first, he likely didn’t do the second either. 

Since Mr. Dupree has been exonerated, I suspect that Mr. Massingill will get the benefit of the doubt. 

But doubt there will always be.

The kind of DNA exoneration cases that Barry Scheck and company have made their particular niche, play an important role in the criminal justice reform fight.  First, they make it clear beyond all possible controversy that innocent people are routinely convicted of crimes they did not commit.

Second, DNA cases almost always involve eye-witness misidentification, so these cases underscore the need to show witnesses one picture at a time and the importance of having an officer unfamiliar with the case display the pictures. 

But as the story below suggests, the age of the DNA exoneration is slowly drawing to a close.  There is still DNA evidence to be profitably tested, but there is less all the time.  Eventually this vein will be tapped out.

Secondly, as I have frequently emphasized, the vast majority of criminal cases are bereft of meaningful DNA evidence.  Mass incarceration, the big problem we face, isn’t primarily a matter of wrongful prosecution.  If we could identify and release all the innocent people tomorrow, we’d just be getting started. 

Mass incarceration is a flawed public policy rooted in economics, politics and religion (more on this in future posts).  Until we understand how we got ourselves into this mess we’ll never get ourselves out. 

But Cornelius Dupree is fortunate that people like Barry Scheck and DA Craig Watkins live in his world. 

Please read the story below–it’s a real heart-warmer.

Man exonerated in ’79 Dallas rape case says, ‘It’s a joy to be free again’

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

By JENNIFER EMILY / The Dallas Morning News

Cornelius Dupree Jr. was exonerated Tuesday, more than 30 years after he told police and prosecutors they had the wrong man.

DNA testing proved he was wrongly convicted in connection with a 1979 Dallas rape, robbery and abduction. Dupree, 51, spent three decades in prison – more time behind bars than any other Texan later cleared by DNA testing.

“It’s a joy to be free again,” Dupree said Tuesday in a brief hearing. Applause broke out in the courtroom full of other exonerees after state District Judge Don Adams told Dupree, “You’re free to go.”

Dupree’s exoneration could be the first in a new wave of cases, albeit probably a small wave.

With 21 DNA exonerations in Dallas County – more than any county in the nation since 2001 – it was believed there were few wrongly incarcerated people left who could be cleared by DNA evidence. Authorities thought that evidence with DNA had only been preserved by the county’s lab since 1981.

But the county’s crime lab discovered DNA to test in pubic hair cuttings of the rape victim while searching for evidence in the Dupree case at the request of the district attorney’s office. Previously, those who worked on DNA exoneration cases believed there would be no DNA to test because swabs that would have collected DNA with rape kits were not preserved at the time.

The Dallas County district attorney’s office says it will now examine two new groups of cases: those that were previously discounted because they were so old that no testable evidence was believed to exist, and more recent cases that the office had already reviewed and rejected as potential exonerations because prosecutors thought no testable evidence existed.

“There are cases we rejected because we didn’t think there was anything to test,” said prosecutor Mike Ware, who oversees the conviction integrity unit. Ware said he has already found a few older cases where existing evidence might contain testable DNA samples.

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins created the conviction integrity unit after he took office in January 2007. The unit combed through just over 500 cases, including requests for which DNA testing had been denied under the previous district attorney, Bill Hill.

Of those 500 cases, prosecutors requested tests for about 50 cases. Around 30 defendants were proved guilty and eight, including Dupree, have been exonerated. A few are still pending, and others were set aside for possible further investigation.

The DA’s office didn’t test more than 400 cases because prosecutors believed there was nothing to test or the DNA would not prove guilt or innocence.

It is unclear how many cases could be affected because prosecutors have not finished re-examining the cases.

The crime

Dupree and another man, Anthony Massingill, 49, were convicted in connection with the 1979 case in which a man and woman were abducted at gunpoint at a liquor store on Dolphin Road near Interstate 30. The woman was sexually assaulted by two men.

Dupree and Massingill were picked up by police two miles from the abduction at a liquor store because police thought they matched the description of rapists in a similar case. They were on their way to a party. Massingill had a gun.

Massingill has also been cleared in the case by DNA testing, but he remains behind bars because he is serving a life sentence in the similar 1979 rape case.

The crime lab is searching for DNA evidence in that case so it, too, can be tested. Police at the time believed the two cases were committed by the same men, so it’s possible he could still be released if testable DNA is not found in the second case.

Dupree was accused in the second case, but a Dallas County grand jury declined to indict him.

Massingill did not respond to a request for an interview at the Dallas County Jail. He did not take part in Tuesday’s proceedings.

Dupree’s only previous criminal record was a burglary charge that resulted in probation, which he successfully completed. Massingill had no prior criminal record before he was accused in the 1979 rape and abduction cases.

Photo lineup

Dupree and Massingill were convicted in the liquor store cases after being misidentified in a photo lineup by the victim. Barry Scheck , co-director of the Innocence Project in New York, which represented Dupree, said both men were in the same lineup, which is now against best practices used by law enforcement.

Watkins, Scheck and Dupree all spoke after the exoneration about the need to change how police departments conduct eyewitness interviews and lineups.

All but one of the county’s exonerations involved faulty eyewitness identification. That’s higher than the national average of 75 percent.

Watkins and Scheck said they will ask the Texas Legislature to address the problem in the upcoming session. Although Dallas police changed their policies after numerous DNA exonerations, most police departments in the state have not.

Scheck said that Dallas police have “the best set of procedures in the country” for photo lineups. Dallas police show lineup photos sequentially instead of all at one time. The lineup is also given by someone not involved in the case.

The original prosecutor in the Dupree case, Kevin Byrne, now in private practice, said he doesn’t remember details about it.

“I recognize the names, but I have no independent recollection of either one of these guys,” he said in an interview. “Obviously, you’re surprised and shocked when you see that.”

Dupree was paroled in July – two weeks before preliminary tests came back clearing the men. A second DNA test confirmed the results of the first test in December.

The day after Dupree’s release, he married a woman he met 20 years earlier while in prison. He and Selma Perkins Dupree held hands as he spoke to reporters after the hearing. His brother, Steven Dupree, who was 8 when his brother went to prison, stood behind them.

“I’m kind of having mixed emotions. I feel that words won’t make up for what I lost,” Cornelius Dupree said, adding that both his parents have died. “It was only by the grace of God that I was able to sustain the long wait.”

4 thoughts on “Cornelius Dupree, Jr. gets his life back

  1. Excellent cartoon in this morning’s AGN. Copyrighted Houston Chronicle. It will not come up on line on AGN and I could not find it on HC. “Who raped you” the dark figure holding a sword asks. The subject points back at the figure, now illuminated and captioned Texas Criminal Justice System. “You!” Worth reproducing as comment to this blog if you can find it.

  2. Mr. Cornelius Dupree,
    Congratualations first of all to you and your wife.
    I am interested in sharing my story with you and your family.
    I too was wrongly convicted by a plea deal to save my life.
    It did. I saw this on Yahoo e-news and felt compelled to contact you.
    I am not in jail, or have felonies.
    I have been seeking my justice for almost a decade against all odds.
    I see a judge to get my life back possibly a week from today.
    Any pointers for court I will be representing myself.
    Ms. Schwawrtz (now widowed) My husband died shockingly. I am a graduate student and really am trying to roll with the punches. I commend your wife for standing by your side. My husband did also.
    Please keep this confidential with your wife.

  3. after 23 1/2 years behind bars I was finally able to obtain a copy of my “secret” HPD file which contain all the evidence of innocence needed to clear my name; only trouble is that it forensics evidence which no Innocent Project will touch( if you were not there at the crime and have DNA evidencve to show you are not the perpetrator,behind bars and indigent). So, I been begginf everyone I know to help me retain counsel who can present evidence of innocence tio my trial court. Texas needs to wake up; all police files should be presented to Defense counsel, the defendant and the trial judge in order to see how witnesses change their testimony and what are the facts of the case. Most Texas trials are trial by ambush when a defense counsel fauils to do his homework and does not know the field in which experts may testify. a ballistics expertt for HPD “failed” to testify that a fatal wound was caused by a spent bullet.

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