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DNA testing exonerates Dallas man but real rapist goes free for 1990 crime

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A Dallas man spent 12 years in prison for a sexual assault he never committed.
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DNA testing of a 1990 rape kit proved the wrong man was convicted.
Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins
Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins has led the charge to review untested rape kits. Photo by Claire St. Amant

A 57-year-old Dallas man who spent 12 years in prison for a crime he did not commit will be exonerated July 25. The Dallas District Attorney's Office announced today that DNA testing proves that Michael Phillips did not rape a 16-year-old girl at a Dallas motel in 1990.

In a cruel twist, the man implicated by DNA testing will go free because of the statute of limitations on sexual assault. Lee Marvin Banks, a 53-year-old African-American man, has a lengthy criminal history, including two arrests for burglary.

After being picked out of a photo lineup by the victim, Phillips said his attorney told him "not to risk going to trial." Phillips, an African-American roughly the same age as Banks, said he pleaded guilty to sexual assault of the white teen out of fear that a jury would have convicted him anyway.

 In a cruel twist, the man implicated by DNA testing will go free because of the statue of limitations on sexual assault.

Before being accused of rape, Phillips had never been charged with a crime in Dallas County.

Although Phillips was not actively pursing an exoneration, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins' systematic DNA testing included Phillips' 1990 case. It is believed this will be the first exoneration of its kind in America.

According to the district attorney's office, Phillips' DNA profile had never been compared to the semen found in the victim because he pleaded guilty, and it was not normal practice to collect samples from sexual assault suspects in 1990.

The Southwest Institute of Forensic Sciences had preserved the rape kit from 1990. When it was recently screened against the FBI's Combined DNA Index System, the DNA identified Lee Marvin Banks as the real perpetrator. Banks lived at the same motel where the 1990 rape took place.

"DNA tells the truth, so this was another case of eyewitness misidentification 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," Watkins said in a statement.

Phillips' case will mark the 34th exoneration from the Dallas DA's Conviction Integrity Unity. Phillips, who lives in a nursing home and is battling sickle cell anemia, will be eligible for wrongful conviction compensation. The State of Texas awards exonerees $80,000 per year of false imprisonment. In Phillips' case, that would equal nearly a million dollars: $960,000.

"I never imagined I would live to see my name cleared," Phillips said in a statement. "I always told everyone I was innocent, and now people will finally believe me."

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