UT Law's Actual Innocence Clinic Helps Prove Innocence of Dallas Man Wrongly Convicted

The Actual Innocence Clinic at The University of Texas School of Law has proved, in collaboration with The University of Texas-Arlington and the Dallas County District Attorney's Office, the innocence of a Dallas man who spent more than 12 years in Texas prisons for a murder he did not commit.

Actual Innocence Clinic hearing
Claude Simmons, seated far left, and Christopher Scott, seated right, at their exoneration hearing in a Dallas courtroom on Oct. 23, 2009. Standing are Tiffany Dowling of the Actual Innocence Clinic at The University of Texas School of Law and Dallas County Public Defender Michelle Moore, far right.Photo: Jay Brousseau

This is the first exoneration by clinic faculty and students, and on Oct. 23 their client, Claude Simmons, walked out of a Dallas courtroom a free man.

A second Dallas man, Christopher Scott, who was also wrongly convicted of the same 1997 murder, also walked free following an exoneration hearing for the two men, who had always maintained their innocence. The Actual Innocence Clinic worked to investigate the case for both Simmons and Scott, although Scott is represented by Michelle Moore of the Dallas County Public Defender's Office. Tiffany Dowling, UT Law's clinic staff attorney, David Sheppard, board member of the Texas Center for Actual Innocence, and John Stickels, director of the The University of Texas-Arlington Innocence Network and an assistant professor in criminology, represent  Simmons.

The double exoneration of capital murder makes the case unique in Dallas. But the case is also unusual because unlike most exoneration cases, Simmons and Scott were cleared without DNA evidence and with the help of two student innocence groups who worked independently on the case for years before collaborating.

The students and faculty at the Actual Innocence Clinic and UT Arlington's Innocence Network were responsible for bringing the case to the attention of the district attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit, which then started a full-fledged joint investigation with the Dallas Police Department's Cold Case Unit last summer. The Dallas County district attorney announced on Oct. 21 that the joint investigation had resulted in an arrest and capital murder charge against one man, and charges against another man already in prison. The arrests cleared the way for Simmons and Scott to be exonerated.

"The exoneration of an innocent man under circumstances like these is as important and as gratifying as any achievement can be," said UT Law Dean Larry Sager. "The students and faculty associated with the Actual Innocence Clinic and the groups with which they worked on this case are to be congratulated and thanked for their commitment to justice. I am very proud of them on the Law School's behalf.

"Professor Bob Dawson worked to establish the Actual Innocence Clinic, and devoted himself throughout his fine career to the cause of justice. Were he alive, he would take great pleasure and satisfaction from the Clinic's achievement."

The clinic and the Texas Center for Actual Innocence (TCAI), a non-profit corporation not formally associated with the Law School, were created in 2003 through the work and inspiration of UT Law Professor Dawson, who died in 2005. The clinic is one of four projects of the TCAI. The members of the center's board of directors and the clinic's staff attorney, Dowling, teach the clinic. This fall they were joined by four journalism students and two journalism faculty, Kate Dawson and Bill Minutaglio, in a collaborative educational experience.

Dowling and Sheppard of the clinic faculty led the Actual Innocence Clinic's investigative team in this case.  Dowling, a clinical instructor on the law faculty, is in charge of the day-to-day clinic operations. Sheppard is a founding member of the Texas Center for Actual Innocence and the Actual Innocence Clinic. Clinic law students bridging several semesters worked on the Simmons exoneration case.

"This is one of the few non-DNA exonerations in Dallas County and the collaborative process, working together with Mr. Stickels and the Dallas County District Attorney's Felony Integrity Unit, has been educational and rewarding, " said Bill Allison, also a founding member of the Texas Center for Actual Innocence and the Actual Innocence Clinic.

"One of the reasons this worked out so well as a non-DNA case is there were multiple innocence organizations working on it and the Dallas district attorney's commitment to finding out what was going on," Dowling said.  "I don't think it would have happened without so many involved parties. I'm really proud of the contribution the clinic and our students have made to this case and every other case we work on."