A man who spent more than two decades behind bars was freed Friday after DNA evidence cleared him in the rape of a 14-year-old Fort Worth girl.
David Lee Wiggins was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1989, although neither of the two fingerprints found at the scene matched his. The girl, whose face was covered during most of the attack, picked Wiggins out of a photo lineup and then a live lineup, saying he looked familiar.
But DNA testing earlier this month excluded Wiggins as the person who committed the crime. Tarrant County prosecutors said DNA evidence demonstrated his innocence.
State District Judge Louis Sturns in Fort Worth freed Wiggins on a personal bond after approving a motion to overturn his conviction. Before the crime is officially cleared from his record, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals must accept the judge’s recommendation or the governor must grant a pardon. Either step is considered a formality after the judge’s ruling.
“I hold no bitterness,” Wiggins said in court after the judge’s ruling. “I’m thankful to Jesus Christ. He said he could move mountains, and surely this was a mountain. … And to the victim: I’m not mad at you. I don’t hold you responsible.”
The packed courtroom then erupted into applause and people rose to their feet. Wiggins later hugged his relatives and some other men who have been freed from prison after DNA evidence exonerated them in recent years. About a dozen of them attended the court hearing to support Wiggins.
“We draw strength from each other,” said Charles Chatman, who was freed in 2008 after serving nearly 27 years for a rape he did not commit. “We’re the only people who know what we are going through.”
Wiggins, who wore a blue shirt and tan pants, said his immediate plans included eating a hamburger and spending time with his sister. He will live with a friend he met through his church ministry, according to the Innocence Project nonprofit group, whose attorneys started working on his case in 2007.
After his conviction is formally reversed, Wiggins will be eligible for $80,000 a year in compensation that Texas pays to wrongfully convicted ex-inmates.
Wiggins would be the second person to have a conviction overturned by DNA in Tarrant County since 2001. In neighboring Dallas County, more than 30 people have had convictions overturned since 2001. About 80 percent of wrongful convictions in Texas are due to faulty witness identifications, said Cory Session, whose half-brother Timothy Cole was wrongfully convicted in a 1985 rape and died in prison before he was declared innocent.
Session said a Texas law passed last year requires all law enforcement agencies to adopt better procedures when using eyewitness identifications.
Wiggins said he agreed to be in a police lineup in 1988 because he knew that he didn’t commit the crime and thought he had nothing to worry about. Instead, it led to a 24-year nightmare that ended Friday.
“I always believed the truth would come out,” he said.