Friday, March 12, 2010

Anatomy of an injustice: the Dwayne Dail case

Dwayne Dail is a poster child for the wrongly accused.  If you aren't familiar with his story, click on his name -- it is must reading. Mr. Dail went to prison in 1989 as a 19-year-old for the rape of a twelve-year-old girl he did not commit.
He ended up serving 18 years in prison and he was repeatedly victimized in prison by the very same crime he did not commit. His life was destroyed. In a  2008 post, we discussed his case here. Some of the highlights:
"Dail screamed as deputies led him away." His young accuser "watched him fall apart as the judge read the jury's verdict. She remembers him screaming his innocence; she saw his mother sob and deputies carry him off. She told herself that's how all men act when they've been accused of such an awful crime. It didn't occur to her Dail might be telling the truth." 
For Mr. Dail's alleged crime "the judge handed down the stiffest punishment the charges allowed: back-to-back life sentences. Plus another 18 years. Dail clutched benches and tables as deputies dragged him from the courtroom. He screamed at his sister, his mother, his father, his brothers, begging them, 'Don't let them take me.'" 
In prison, Mr. Dail was subjected to the same crime he was wrongly accused of committing, and other atrocities. "His mind wanders to dark corners of tough prisons. To the man he watched being stabbed to death in the yard of one prison camp. To months he spent in the 'hole' -- punishment for cursing at a senior guard. At 20, Dail knew what became of men like him in prison. At a slight 115 pounds, Dail had bright eyes and full lips that drew droves of ladies on the dance floors of Goldsboro clubs. In prison, his looks promised both doom and salvation. His conviction guaranteed trouble. 'I was little, white, pretty, and I stuck out like a sore thumb,' Dail said. 'I was prey.' Months later, two men cornered him in an isolated cell block and raped him. He swallowed a cry for help, knowing it would bring more problems than safety. Dail quickly learned how sex is swapped in prison. Beatings were negotiated and rendered based on connections. Dail formed some liaisons to keep him safe. Others he sought to keep himself sane. Dail found intimacy with men for so long, he is certain he will pursue men now that he is free. Dail didn't prefer men before he went to prison, but like so many of the identities he claimed there, he is not sure which are real and which are pretend." 
Finally, DNA evidence freed Mr. Dail in 2007, but not before the damage had been done. Dail's life has been on a downward spiral "He's terrified to sleep at night, fearing he'll wake in prison. He cries when he spills a soda. Dail took a job briefly with Starbucks, but suffered anxiety attacks when he couldn't keep pace during training. 'The honeymoon's over and the reality of all I've been through has finally set in,' Dail said . . . . 'I thought as time went on I'd be able to adjust and move on. It gets harder every day.'"
The girl was raped; after Mr. Dail was released, another man was tied to the crime. Was the victim's life better because she unwittingly helped put an innocent man away for 18 years?

It is a given that what happened to Mr. Dail was terrible. But should it be dismissed as "just one of those things" that could happen to anyone -- the occasional, necessary price of the war on rape?

In fact, what happened to Mr. Dail was entirely avoidable. Mr. Dail's conviction was based almost entirely on the say so of a teenage girl. If you want to know how easy it is to commit an injustice with such scant evidence, read what the district attorney who prosecuted Mr. Dail said about the case.  But a warning: don't read this on an empty stomach.

Don Strickland, the attorney who prosecuted the case, said this: "I didn't have the strongest case in the world, but nor did I have the weakest."  He explained that his prosecution of Dail hinged on two things -- the victim's identification and the "microscopically consistent" hair found on the rug in her room (which just meant that the hair had the same characteristics as Mr. Dail's hair).
Strickland said the following: "The strongest thing I remember about it was the way she identified him. She was walking in an apartment area and she just froze and said 'Mom, that's him.' She was an excellent witness. She was almost a prosecutor's dream. She positively (identified) him."

As for the hair:  "The science of that hair match was not the greatest in the world, but in those days we didn't have DNA. It was the best we had. I thought it was better than nothing, but it turned out it wasn't."

And a pubic hair found at the scene did not match Mr. Dail. 

Oh, they had other "evidence," too -- useless evidence -- a vaginal swab, but they weren't able to make an accurate determination whether the semen had come from Mr. Dail or not.

Wait, there's more. What about the police investigation? "It wasn't the greatest police work in the case. That detective was no Sherlock Holmes."
In sum, they had junk science with the "consistent" hair that the prosecutor now admits was the same as nothing; evidence that was inconsistent with Mr. Dail's involvement; evidence that everyone accepted showed nothing (the vaginal swab); a mediocre police investigation; and a twelve-year-old girl who pointed to Dail in the courtroom and described her attacker as having shoulder-length light brown hair and a beard.  The problem was, at the time of the attack, Dail and others testified that his hair was bleached and cut in a "Billy Idol" style, and that he was incapable of growing anything more than patchy facial hair. See

But the prosecutor said: "The girl said that he was the guy who did it. I couldn't dismiss that," Strickland said.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, tells us that there is something very, very wrong with the system.

As a footnote: Mr. Dail was sued for child support for a child born while he was in prison. The mother was allowed to recover a small portion of the money Dail was paid by the state for being wrongly convicted. See here.