DALLAS — Jerry Lee Evans, a wrongly convicted man released Wednesday after nearly 23 years in prison, said he was certain he would be acquitted during his 1987 trial for aggravated sexual assault with a deadly weapon.
"My whole defense was that when the young lady saw me in court, she'd say she made a mistake," said Evans, the latest innocent man cleared by DNA testing in Dallas County. "But that's the way life is. Life ain't fair."
DNA test results that came back earlier this month excluded Evans as the rapist, leading to his release. The tests did not match any profiles and authorities have no suspects, prosecutors said.
Evans had originally applied for post-conviction DNA testing in 2002, but his petition was ignored by the courts, said his public defender, Michelle Moore.
Judge Carter Thompson apologized to Evans, who accepted his release with a chuckle and a vow to go to McDonald's for a hamburger.
"The court hopes that your next 23 years are happier than your last 23 years," Thompson said.
Evans said his father died while he was in prison, and he has not seen his mother in more than two decades. He said he plans to live with a cousin until September, when he becomes eligible for compensation from the state for his wrongful imprisonment.
"It's good to be free," Evans said. "I knew it would come one day. I just didn't know it would take 23 years."
Evans becomes the 21st Dallas County man to have a judge set aside his conviction. Prosecutors, however, plan to retry the defendant in one of those cases, believing the man is guilty of murder even though DNA testing excluded him as the rapist.
Dallas has more DNA exonerations than any jurisdiction in the nation, in part because its crime lab maintains biological evidence decades after the crimes. Craig Watkins, the Dallas County district attorney and the state's first African-American elected to a DA job, has broken from his predecessors in his willingness to re-examine cases in which DNA is available.
Watkins called the Evans case "a shocking reminder of how flawed the criminal justice system has been in the past and how much work we have ahead of us to ensure credibility is restored to the system."
At least seven exonerees attended the hearing Wednesday, offering their support to Evans. James Giles, who served 10 years for a wrongful rape conviction, gave Evans a $100 bill to help him get started.
Another exoneree, James Woodard, shook Evans hand, telling him: "We are a small group. Anything we can help you with, just call us." Woodard spent more than 27 years in prison for a 1980 murder he did not commit.
Evans was convicted and received a life sentence for the 1986 rape of an 18-year-old freshman at Southern Methodist University. The victim was attacked when she was out with a friend in an entertainment district near downtown Dallas.
A man forced his way into their car and at knifepoint made them drive to a secluded area, where the attacker sexually assaulted the victim. He also stole money and jewelry from both women and the keys to the car before fleeing into the woods, Watkins said.
Police targeted Evans after stopping at a nearby shelter frequented by day laborers, said Mike Ware, the head of Dallas County's Conviction Integrity Unit. Those who lived there identified Evans as a man who fit the description of the attacker, and the victim later identified him in a police lineup and in court.
The police "suffered from tunnel vision" and were determined to make a case against Evans, Moore said. She added that the cross-racial identification — the victim is white and Evans is black — is a common theme in most of the Dallas County cases.
Ware said he has been in touch with both the victim and her friend, and that they are aware of Evans' release. He declined to discuss their reaction.
The Evans case comes at a time when the Texas House, slowed by partisan fighting, appears unlikely to advance a bill that could make police lineups and photo arrays more reliable.
"I'm sick about it," said Ware, who testified before the state House and Senate regarding the bill.
Gov. Rick Perry on Wednesday signed into law a separate bill that will increase the compensation paid to exonerees and help them obtain an education and career skills.
Evans' exoneration came just 30 minutes after a hearing in the same courtroom for another man who had claimed his innocence. DNA testing in that case, however, confirmed the conviction of Vincent James Draper in the 1985 sexual assault of a child.
Draper, who was also represented by Moore, will continue to serve his 99-year sentence. His two DNA tests cost about $10,000. One was at a county lab funded by tax money, and the other was at a private lab and paid for by private money, Moore said.
Moore said she was angered by Draper's continued claim of innocence.