A Dallas man who spent 14 years in prison for doggedly refusing to admit he sexually assaulted his stepdaughter was set free Friday in a case that had been unraveling since the victim recanted and former prosecutors were accused of withholding evidence.
State District Judge Susan Hawk told Dale Lincoln Duke, 60, it was a "privilege" to release him, triggering applause and a standing ovation in a courtroom that included his parents.
"This is overwhelming," said Duke's 87-year-old father, George.
Hawk agreed with current Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins that Duke did not sexually assault the 7-year-old girl in 1992. In the intervening years, the victim has recanted her story, and Duke's attorney, Robert Udashen, earlier this year found that prosecutors in the 1990s had withheld evidence that cast doubt on the girl's credibility.
Duke had entered a no contest plea to the charge and received 10 years' deferred adjudication. But he was later kicked out of a counseling program for refusing to admit he committed the offense, so he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Asked after Friday's hearing why he refused to admit to the crime in the face of prison time, Duke said his faith in God precluded him from doing so.
"It says in The Word not to bear false witness," he said. "I had to do something I could live with."
The freed man, surrounded by family and friends, said he has no definite plans.
"I'm going to take it easy, relax a little bit, get back into society and see how things go," Duke said.
Under Watkins, the county has worked diligently to overturn false convictions, but Duke's case is a rarity in that it didn't hinge on DNA. Since 2001, 22 people have been exonerated in the county through DNA testing, a record unmatched nationally.
Udashen said the key to determining Duke's innocence was the discovery by Watkins' office in March of notes indicating that the victim's maternal grandmother thought the girl was lying.
By not turning over exculpatory evidence, the prosecutors who dealt with Duke's case in the 1990s engaged in prosecutorial misconduct, Udashen said. Those prosecutors are now deceased, as is the grandmother, the attorney said.
Watkins said the reversal of Duke's conviction represents how sometimes prosecutors are "more concerned with getting a conviction than doing what's right."
Watkins said the success of the DNA outcomes pursued by his office has created the public confidence necessary to examine cases where science is not the major factor.
"This case is a prime example of that," he said. "Thankfully, Mr. Duke kept fighting, which gave us the ability to look at his case."
After the hearing, both Hawk and Watkins shook Duke's hand.
"I'm glad to have you back in society," Watkins told Duke.
"Me too," Duke responded.
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