DALLAS – When a judge told Patrick Waller he was a free man Thursday after being wrongly convicted and imprisoned for more than 15 years, the former inmate raised both arms skyward and then collapsed into his mother’s embrace.
His sobs were the only sound at a crowded hearing attended by four other inmates also exonerated by DNA testing.
“It’s all right, honey,” Patricia Cunningham told her son. “It’s over. You’re out of here. You’re going home.”
Waller – imprisoned since late 1992 for an aggravated robbery and aggravated kidnapping in Dallas – was proved innocent by DNA testing late last year and freed Thursday.
“I feel vindicated,” said Waller, 38. “I feel thankful. Most of all, I feel blessed.”
His release had been all but certain since last week, when the Dallas County district attorney’s office announced that DNA evidence had cleared Waller and matched the profile of another man.
That suspect and an accomplice have confessed but the statute of limitations has expired.
Waller becomes the 19th man in Dallas County since 2001 shown by DNA evidence to be innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. That’s more than any county in the nation, according to The Innocence Project in New York.
In 2001 and 2005, Waller requested post-conviction DNA testing under a new state law but was denied. He asked again in 2007, when District Attorney Craig Watkins took office, and his request was granted.
Watkins has started a program in which law students, supervised by the Innocence Project of Texas, review old cases in which inmates have requested DNA testing.
Waller said he regained his faith in the justice system when Watkins reopened the case.
“If it wasn’t for Craig Watkins,” said Waller’s lawyer Gary Udashen, “he probably would have spent the rest of his life in prison.”