Thu, Dec 23, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Wrongly convicted man released after 17 years

INJUSTICE After spending years in prison trying to prove his innocence of a rape conviction, DNA testing finally enabled Brandon Moon to go free

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , EL PASO, TEXAS

For his first day back "in the world" as a free man after nearly 17 years, Brandon Moon made sure he was dressed in blue, his favorite color, carrying a white cowboy hat, symbol of all Western good guys. He wore the horsehair belt a fellow prison craftsman made at his request and a belt buckle of his own design, an Eye of God cross embellished in nickel, brass and copper and set with a zircon stone.

Shown by DNA testing to have been wrongly convicted of rape in 1988, Moon was released from prison at a court hearing here on Tuesday afternoon -- the latest among 154 men and women in the US exonerated by such tests.

Moon and his parents were in the packed courtroom to hear the El Paso district attorney, Jaime Esparza, apologize for the wrongful conviction, for himself and for the state of Texas.

With them were Barry Scheck, a lawyer from New York, whose 12-year-old Innocence Project has accounted for more than half of those exonerated, and another lawyer from Scheck's office, Nina Morrison.

"I know we can't give you back your years," Esparza said, "and for that I'm extremely sorry."

Moon responded, "I accept your apology."

The El Paso case suggested that Texas' crime laboratory scandals are not limited to Houston, where two other convicted Texans were exonerated earlier and two grand juries have investigated tainted evidence after a landmark DNA testing statute passed in 2001 by the Texas Legislature.

In the courtroom, Scheck said he would ask for an audit of all cases using evidence from the Department of Public Safety's former "expert" on serology, or serums, Glen David Adams, whose incorrect scientific results helped to convict Moon on three counts of aggravated sexual assault, resulting in a 75-year sentence, and sample checks of other crime laboratory evidence.

Adams worked at the Lubbock crime laboratory from 1986 to 1991. The department said that his whereabouts now were unknown.

Scheck also called for pilot programs in eyewitness identification, citing mistaken identity as the "single greatest cause of innocents being convicted."

In Moon's case, the prosecution presented eyewitness testimony from the rape victim herself and three other women whose rapes followed a similar pattern. The rape victim picked out Moon from a photograph and police lineup, in which he was the only blue-eyed white male, a full 18 months after the attack.

Scheck and Morrison both praised their client's efforts from prison to act as his own lawyer but said his pleas for DNA testing were fully heard only after the Innocence Project got involved last May and had a semen-stained bathrobe and a comforter from the bed where the rape took place re-examined.

Moon, now 43, was "bounced around the courts like a Ping-Pong ball," Morrison said. "We only came in at the ninth inning." Counting the years, Moon said in an interview on Sunday before his release that he felt as if he had played for 17 innings -- "it was a very long game."

"The courts are so hostile to pro se litigants," Morrison said. "The instinct is to deny, deny, deny." Still, after DNA results established Moon's innocence, "it took less than a week" for Esparza "to do the right thing," she added.

Moon, a four-year Army veteran, had been a sophomore student at the University of Texas at El Paso in 1987 when he was arrested on the rape charge. A member of the Air Force ROTC, he had hoped to become a "lifer" in the Air Force and fly fighter jets after his graduation.

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