Cold Case Convictions: Using DNA to Exonerate the Innocent

To continue with our series on the consequences of allowing rape kits to remain untested, we turn to the story of 57-year-old Michael Phillips of Dallas, Texas, who was exonerated on July 25 after having spent 12 years in prison on charges of rape.

According to Reuters, the case “marked the first time someone has been cleared of a crime by DNA testing that was not requested by the convicted person.” Although Phillips, who was released from prison in 2002, had previously challenged his conviction, he did not have any appeals pending at the time of his exoneration.

He was finally proven innocent with the help of the Conviction Integrity Unit at the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office, which aims to review and process untested rape kits, regardless of whether the defendant makes a request. 

District Attorney Craig Watkins explains, "Untested rape kits should not just sit on a shelf and collect dust. The exoneration continues to expose the past weakness in our criminal justice system.”

Phillips was exonerated of the 1990 rape of a 16-year-old girl at a hearing on July 25. Currently, he resides in a nursing home and suffers from sickle-cell anemia. He said in a statement,  "I never imagined I would live to see my name cleared. I always told everyone I was innocent and now people will finally believe me.”

DNA testing revealed the actual perpetrator of the crime, but because the statute of limitations has already expired, he cannot be prosecuted. Of this injustice, District Attorney Watkins said “DNA tells the truth, so this was another case...where one individual’s life was wrongfully snatched and a violent criminal was allowed to go free. We apologize to Michael Phillips for a criminal justice system that failed him.”

As this case illustrates, not only does testing all rape kits booked into evidence provide survivors with an opportunity for healing and justice, it also makes for a fairer criminal justice system in which innocent people like Michael Phillips do not spend years of their lives in prison. 

- By Jaclyn Katz, August 20, 2014

ENDTHEBACKLOG is a program of the Joyful Heart Foundation to shine a light on the backlog of untested rape kits throughout the United States. Our goal is to end this injustice by conducting groundbreaking research identifying the extent of the nation’s backlog and best practices for eliminating it, expanding the national dialogue on rape kit testing through increased public awareness, engaging communities and government agencies and officials and advocating for comprehensive rape kit reform legislation and policies at the local, state and federal levels. We urge you to learn more about the backlog, where it exists and why it matters. We invite you to take action and support efforts to test rape kits. Help us send the message that we must take rape seriously.

keep up with backlog news

END THE BACKLOG is a JOYFUL HEART FOUNDATION initiative and a proud supporter of