With the consent of the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office, a Texas judge today vacated the conviction and freed David Wiggins based on new DNA evidence proving him innocent of a 1988 sexual assault of a fourteen-year-old girl. Wiggins walked out of the Tarrant County Court House today after serving 24 years for a crime he always maintained he didn’t commit.
“Mr. Wiggins has suffered greatly at the hands of the criminal justice system, but his road to justice was made much swifter by the cooperation of Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “The District Attorney’s office readily agreed to DNA testing, opened its complete file to us, and fully cooperated with the reinvestigation that has ultimately proven Mr. Wiggins’ innocence.”
At around 10:15 AM on July 21, 1988, a fourteen-year-old girl in the Meadows of Candleridge neighborhood was at home alone during summer vacation. After she opened the back door to let her dog outside, an unknown male intruder knocked her to the floor. The perpetrator then turned the victim onto her back and put a towel over her face and his hand over her mouth while he proceeded to sexually assault and rape her. Throughout the encounter, the victim had an opportunity to view the perpetrator’s face at most three times for somewhere between 10 and 30 seconds each time. The victim called 911 just a few minutes after the perpetrator left her house. When the police arrived, she gave a general description of her attacker as a white male who had very foul smelling body odor. Soon after the police arrived, she was taken by ambulance to the John Peter Smith Hospital where doctors collected a rape kit. Although fluid was collected from the victim, the Fort Worth Police Department Crime Laboratory did not conduct serological or DNA testing on the evidence because they concluded that the quantity of fluid collected was insufficient for the early forms of DNA technology that existed in the late 1980s.
Two days after the assault, the victim was shown a photo array that included a photo of Wiggins. Next to his photograph, she wrote, “looks familiar.” She also noted that unlike the photograph of Wiggins, she recalled that the perpetrator’s “hair was combed” and “he looked neater.”
Wiggins was arrested on July 23rd as a passenger in a stolen car. He was placed in a live line up on July 24th and was selected by the victim; Wiggins was the only person in the lineup whose photograph was in the array shown to the victim previously. The victim also identified him as her attacker at trial. The prosecution produced no physical evidence at trial connecting Wiggins with the crime. The only evidence other than the victim’s identification was the testimony of the driver of the stolen car and another witness who claimed that Wiggins had told them that he had approached a house to burglarize it but when he entered the house he saw a girl and ran away.
“The identification procedure used illustrates what the scientists who have studied misidentification refer to as ‘mug shot’ commitment,” said Nina Morrison, Senior Staff Attorney with the Innocence Project. “When the victim viewed the photo array, she was not certain about the identification, but having seen the photo influenced her subsequent identifications, each time making her more confident that she picked the right person.”
Prior to trial, Wiggins’s court-appointed attorney did not file any motions challenging the lineup procedures, nor did he seek any expert assistance to explain to the jury why the victim might have misidentified him. Wiggins himself filed a pro se, handwritten motion from jail to suppress the victim’s identification, but his attorney never followed up on the motion and the court never held a hearing on the issue before or during the trial.
Wiggins has always maintained his innocence of the crime. Before his trial, he filed a pro se motion seeking DNA testing that was denied. During the trial, his attorney argued that Wiggins was misidentified and that the other two witnesses were motivated to lie. Among other incentives, both were on probation and were asked to testify by the prosecution. The jury rejected these arguments and convicted Wiggins on August 9, 1989, of sexual assault of a child. He was sentenced to life in prison.
After his conviction, Wiggins filed multiple unsuccessful pro se requests for DNA testing. He eventually sought the help of the Innocence Project, which accepted his case in 2007. With the cooperation of the Tarrant County District Attorney’s office, the clothing that the victim was wearing during the crime was sent to a lab for DNA testing, which found sperm on the victim’s shorts (which she put on immediately after the assault) that does not match Wiggins. Since the victim had no prior sexual history, which was confirmed by the doctors who examined her, the Tarrant County prosecutor readily agreed that Wiggins was wrongly convicted.
“Thanks at least in part to the lessons learned through the nearly 300 DNA exonerations, the criminal justice system in Texas has made significant improvements to its lineup procedures since Mr. Wiggins was arrested in 1989,” said Morrison. “Just last year the state passed a law requiring all police departments in the state to adopt eyewitness identification procedures conforming to best practices. As departments begin complying with this new requirement, hopefully Mr. Wiggins’s experience will serve as an important reminder that these policies will protect the innocent and help ensure that the real perpetrators are caught.”
Under the new law, police departments must either adopt the model identification policy that was developed by the Bill Blackwood Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas (LEMIT) at Sam Houston State University or develop their own policies that comply with numerous requirements. One of the most critical of these is that lineups and photo lineup be performed in a “blind” manner, meaning that the officer who performs the procedure does not know the identity of the suspect. According to the Innocence Project, the model policy developed by LEMIT is among the best in the country in addressing eyewitness misidentifications. Dallas as well as smaller jurisdictions including Bay Town and Joshua have already adopted the LEMIT policy.
Wiggins was joined in court by family members who were on hand to witness his release before Judge Louis Sturns. While in prison Wiggins regularly attended religious services and participated in the choir. In fact, he was pulled out of choir practice when he received the call from Morrison that he would soon be leaving prison. Following his release today, Wiggins will be living with a friend he met through his church ministry.
Larry Moore of the law firm of Moore & Cummings in Fort Worth assisted the Innocence Project as local counsel.